UK’s digital service risks unravelling, founder warns

Come December, the unit will have suffered three senior departures.

Current changes in the GDS risk undermining the purpose of the unit, warned Francis Maude, the Minister who set up the pioneering unit. “We are beginning to unwind precisely the arrangements that had led to that and which were being copied in America and Australia and also some other countries as well. This is for me a pity, there is a sense these old structures in government, which are essentially about preserving the power of the mandarins, are being reasserted”, Maude said at an event at the Conservative Party Conference. The GDS has hit problems in recent months due to increasing conflicts with permanent secretaries. The unit had been trying to implement an ambitious ‘government as a platform’ agenda which took control over ICT spending into the centre of government and migrated agencies onto shared systems. The digital service replaced its second leader, Stephen Foreshew-Cain, after nine months in office. “Cross-government platforms and cross-government services are absolutely the way of the future. There is a continuing need for very strong central strategic leadership with the power backing it up to stop the wrong things happening”, Maude said. The unit was established with a bang, with huge turnover in the CIO ranks and the establishment of digital leaders in each department. These changes allowed the UK to rise up to number one in the UN e-government rankings, but it did create tension between the centre of government and departmental chiefs. Last month, a departmental IT leader was appointed to run the unit and is changing the unit’s approach, causing a further exodus of staff. In December, Paul Maltby, the Director of Data for UK’s Government Digital Service will leave the unit when his contract ends, the British Cabinet Office confirmed this week. “I’m proud to have led the UK government’s world-leading activity on open data”, Maltby said. Digital unit chiefs discussed how to win departmental support at Innovation Labs World in September. Paul Shetler, Chief Executive of Australia’s Digital Transformation Office, advised making departments “heroes” and giving them public credit for successful transformation projects. Image by gdsteam, licensed under CC BY 2.0