“The UK Government Digital Service is dead”

N.B. This blog post has turned into an archive for post-GDS analyses. I’ll add more articles as I encounter them on the web.

David Eaves describes on Medium how and why the British Government Digital Service met its (in practical terms) demise.

GDS represented a centralization of IT control, and the departments — for whom GDS frequently found savings of tens of millions of pounds and provided effective online services on behalf of— didn’t like seeing their autonomy and budget sucked away by a group of IT geeks.

I suspect the existence of GDS and its global network has activated a global counter-movement among senior mandarins.

… if you work for a digital service outside the UK, it is time to go double down on political cover and/or to reach out to the senior public servants around you and build some alliances.

The empire of traditional siloed bureaucracy is fighting back. You probably won’t beat it. So how are you going to engage it?

Government (digital) innovation is a topic near and dear to my heart. I’m greatly saddened by this chain of events and sincerely hope that other initiatives won’t face the same fate.

Update I: Helen Margretts has written an insightful analysis over at The Conversation. She hints at what is happening behind the scenes, describes a number of GDS’ weaknesses and sketches possible paths forward in which GDS’ work is decentralised, and everything returns back to “normal”: big departments outsourcing their IT to big companies.

The largest government departments have begun to reassert their authority over GDS expert advice, and digital government looks likely to be dragged back towards the deeply dysfunctional old ways of doing things.

An issue GDS never tackled is one that has existed right from the start: is it an army, or is it a band of mercenaries working in other departments? Should GDS be at the centre, building and providing systems, or should it just help others to do so, building their expertise?

Many departments resented the centralisation of GOV.UK, and the removal of their departmental websites, but it’s likely they’re used to it now, even relieved that it’s no longer their problem.

If GDS is diminished or disbanded, any hope of creating effective digital government faces two threats.

A land-grab from the biggest departments – HMRC, DWP and the Home Office, all critics of the GDS – is one possibility.

[…]

The other threat is the big companies, poised in the wings to renew their influence on government should GDS controls on contract size be removed. It has already begun: the ATLAS consortium led by HP has already won two Ministry of Defence contracts worth £1.5 billion since founding GDS chief Mike Bracken resigned.

It’s hard to see how government as a platform can be taken forward without expertise and capacity at the centre – no single department would have the incentive to do so.

The article is full of interesting links; head out and read it!



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