Contributed by Jeannot Bos
There remains significant uncertainty about the future of the Government Digital Service (GDS) in following the departure of its primary champion, Mike Bracken, this past summer. There have been some that suggested the GDS is entirely unnecessary and others who say that it should exist in a smaller form in today’s budget-constrained times. My greatest concern is the potential impact on Government-as-a-Service (GaaP), because it is clear that GDS’ champions played an important role in the evangelism of what is frankly a radical – but in my view critical and inevitable – transformation of public service delivery made possible by a radical transformation in the underlying IT infrastructure.
GaaP is still very much conceptual, but it provides a vision of how services could and should be delivered. Without it, I worry that the progress made so far will drift and indeed potentially fade away. Furthermore, a vision is a long-term goal, not something that happens in the cycle of an annual public service budget. If we consign digital transformation to departments they are going to fund the status quo, assigning large portions of their budget to process not to adopting new technologies that lead to innovation and long-term budget savings.
GDS head Mike Bracken said as much in an interview with a leading UK IT title. It appears the strategy discussion in Government boils down to a centralized, GDS approach or a devolved departmental-led approach. When Bracken describes the latter as “mandarin-led lands of authority” he does not inspire me with confidence that individual departments will act in a collegiate fashion to deliver integrated digital services for UK citizens. Indeed I’d go as far as to say that recent stories from central Government support that view. On the one hand we heard rumors the Government is threatening to end a contract with a major database vendor, yet the very next week, it announced an extension of its licensing contract.
It was a probably a negotiating maneuver and it certainly suggests Government departments are struggling to change.
Still, there are some individual public service providers, such as NHS Trusts and the Inland Revenue proving that alternative models are workable.
It is clear that evolving Government services to the digital world will not be an easy process. It will take time, but abandoning the vision of GaaP is dangerous. With the impending outcome of the Treasury’s spending review everyone who cares about modernizing public services is rightly concerned that the long-term vision will be sacrificed for short term gains. Without strategic clarity and leadership departments will rightly struggle to understand what is expected of them. Practically, such a vision provides a long-term focus, which is in direct contradiction to the annual budget-led planning approach of public services today. More importantly it will be difficult to encourage, cajole and even force naysayers to accept the need for greater collaboration.
Ultimately change will happen. Finding £40bn of savings in the next Parliamentary cycle will certainly focus minds in Whitehall, but more importantly the maturing of the generation of digital natives will increase the demand for greater digitization. And as every politician knows, come election time voters, can be extremely judgemental on the past records of their elected representatives.