It’s almost 10 years since the Government Digital Service (GDS) was set up, back in the early days of Cameron, Clegg and the Coalition. Lauded as the young, vibrant upstarts that would transform sleepy, sclerotic Whitehall departments, some would argue that GDS has since become just another part of the same old establishment bureaucracy that it was meant to disrupt.
Certainly, the past few years have seen the Cabinet Office unit criticised for drift and a dearth of strategy and purpose. In July 2019, MPs on the Science and Technology Select Committee cited changes in leadership, an unclear role and a lack of authority as reasons for what they saw as GDS’s fading relevance. But the past 18 months has brought something of a revival, as GDS found itself at the heart of the digital government aspects of the Brexit transition and the Covid-19 pandemic.
A month before that critical report by MPs, GDS director general Kevin Cunnington announced he was stepping down. The team has since been under two different interim leaders until, in February, a permanent chief was finally appointed. Tom Read, previously chief digital and information officer at the Ministry of Justice, took on the new title of GDS chief executive.
As part of the original GDS team under Mike Bracken and Liam Maxwell from 2013 to 2015, and subsequently within major Whitehall departments watching GDS from the outside, Read appears to be an ideal candidate to bridge the two previous eras of GDS and perhaps combine the best of both into the next phase of transforming online public services.
“I see this as the third major iteration of GDS,” says Read, in an exclusive interview with Computer Weekly. “That first iteration was really interesting, because it was necessary at the time. This brilliant group of people came together from outside of Whitehall who wanted to go and question how things are structured, and kind of force through change,” he says.
“[The CDDO] allows the policy, strategy and controls bit of the Cabinet Office to work across government and really clear the way for me and my team to focus on digital delivery, which is kind of what GDS way back was set up to do – to build products”
Tom Read, Government Digital Service
“I think GDS over the second iteration was much more affiliative, a much more collaborative organisation. And it spent an awful lot of its time doing the core work on Gov.uk, which is absolutely vital.
“For the third iteration, I think the pendulum has swung one way and then the other and I’m somewhere in between. My approach is one of bridge-building and working together.”
Read takes over a revamped GDS. Parts of its former responsibilities, including leading the 18,000 civil servants working in the digital, data and technology profession, broader digital government strategy and spending controls, have been handed to yet another newly created Cabinet Office unit, the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO).
“For me, that’s a really good thing,” says Read. “[The CDDO] allows the policy, strategy and controls bit of the Cabinet Office to work across government and really clear the way for me and my team to focus on digital delivery, which is kind of what GDS way back was set up to do – to build products.”
Last month, Read set out his new three-year strategy for GDS, with a £90m annual budget and eventually 800 staff – currently it’s a little less than 600 with recruitment underway.
The plan defines three “categories” of service that GDS will offer – services that hide the complexity of government structures for the users; services that can only be delivered by the centre; and building services once to be reused widely.
Alongside, Read laid out five “missions” for GDS: further development of the Gov.uk website; building joined-up services across multiple departments; a digital identity programme to replace the troubled Gov.uk Verify system; creating common tools, for example to replace some of the 3,000-plus services that still rely on printing and filling out a PDF form; and joining up data across departments.
“The [overall] mission of GDS is about the digital relationship between the user and the state, and how we can make that a more seamless experience, how we can build once and build well – rather than building multiple times – and reducing duplication,” he says.
While he is keen not to look backwards, Read’s intentions around the evolution of GDS are, perhaps inevitably, influenced by past criticisms.
“When you work in the centre, you can get a bit myopic. I want people to be spending time with these incredible digital teams that are sitting in [other departments]. Having that as a virtual community will be really powerful. It’s more like working as one big, convening team rather than as this specialist, super-secret squad,” he says.
“There was the adage that ‘the strategy is delivery’. I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with that, because what it really means is the strategy is to deliver something quickly that’s good and then people are idiots if they don’t adopt it.
“We need to be known for delivering at pace and delivering quality, getting things in the hands of users really early. And we need to stop stuff – even if we get mean articles from Computer Weekly as a result – we need to stop stuff if it’s not working. We need to say, ‘That is not the right approach, so we’ll stop’.”
It’s the last of Read’s five “missions” that could prove to be the most controversial. The idea of extensive data sharing between different parts of government justifiably raises the hackles of privacy campaigners. As Computer Weekly revealed in February, Read’s ultimate boss, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, has told departments they must share user identity data and government website activity, despite earlier promises not to track citizens as they traverse the Gov.uk estate.
Read acknowledges the privacy issues will need to be addressed.
Tom Read, GDS
“They are really fair concerns from people. But we want to build a set of personalised services that make it much easier for you to get things done through government, in the same way you would expect of any other service. If you went to one bit of Amazon, and then you logged on to your Amazon Prime account, and it was like we’d never heard of you, it would be really frustrating and you wouldn’t accept it. So that’s what we want [for Gov.uk],” he says.
“The key thing is, because we’re a monopoly service provider, this kind of data integration is going to be optional. One of the key features we’re building in right at the beginning is that if you don’t want those data items to be connected, you will be able to disconnect and just do it the way you currently do. If you don’t want to use digital channels at all, we will always have ways that people can do that. So if your fundamental concern is privacy, and perhaps a distrust in government, we will make sure that everything still works smoothly.”
Having said that, Read also acknowledges there may be a need for further legislation to enable the sort of pan-government data sharing that’s being planned. That’s going to be an important debate for the future.
At the core of the relationship GDS wants to create between online state and citizen is a new digital identity system. After spending over £200m, Verify has finally been scrapped – although it’s still being kept going for another couple of years until its successor is ready. Read considers Verify “a partial success”, which is more than most.
“People are using [Verify] but it’s not perfect, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing another programme,” he says.
The replacement is known as “One login for government”, and sits alongside Gov.uk Accounts, a system already being trialled to allow a personalised web experience for users. Unlike Verify, private sector involvement in identity verification will be limited, and – at this early stage at least – GDS is keeping departments closely involved in the project to ensure better buy-in than with Verify.
Reinventing the car
But still, surely there’s an element of expensively reinventing the wheel? The wider proposals for joined-up services focused around life events such as starting a business or having a baby – instead of oriented around the various departments that provide parts of the process – are hardly new ideas either.
Read disagrees, and contends that it’s more like “reinventing the car”.
“It’s a really good challenge. It’s hard working in digital government because you’re very public. But we’ve got a lot of ambition,” he says.
“We are working with departments across government properly on this, as if we’re embedding teams and people to work on these problems together, rather than building this silo in the centre and then trying to make people do it by bashing them on the head with spend controls. We’re not doing that anymore.
“If we build something together and people don’t want to adopt it, then we should iterate that, or maybe there’s a silly decision being made. But most likely, if we build authentically together then I can’t see one wouldn’t succeed. The fact that it hasn’t happened doesn’t make it a bad idea – it just means that it is hard. But we’re going to give it a really good go.”
Read also points to ministerial support as a key factor, thanks to Cabinet Office parliamentary secretary Julia Lopez and backing from Gove. Long-term GDS watchers will recall the critical role played by Francis Maude as the ministerial enforcer who took on reluctant civil service mandarins back in the early days.
Tom Read, GDS
That support may be needed – GDS in the past has not always been welcomed with open arms by certain departments, especially the larger ones that feel they have the skills in-house and know their own business better than GDS ever could. Pretty much every leader with any cross-Whitehall responsibility for digital or technology in the past 20 years has cited the need for departments to work together, and yet here we are still, with digital leaders citing the need for departments to work together.
Here too, Read, having been on both sides, comes across as an exemplar of reasonableness.
“For the GDS of 2021 onwards, we don’t want to be arrogant, we want to be humble. We want to be collaborative. We want to avoid the ‘not invented here’ mentality. So if there are good things out there that work and we can integrate, we will integrate them. There’s absolutely no reason not to. That’s the sort of culture and the approach we’re trying to take. Maybe that’s different from the past, I don’t know, but that’s what we’re going to be doing,” he says.
Part of that cultural change involves opening up GDS hubs in Manchester and Bristol to overcome the idea that the team is too London-centric – a move that also helps to expand the available talent pool for recruitment.
“I want to make sure we build a really diverse and inclusive workforce, and not least because we are representing the whole country and we need people who reflect those communities – we need those different perspectives. Sometimes it takes longer to recruit if you take that seriously, in an industry like tech which is skewed quite heavily towards men,” says Read.
It’s been a tough year during the pandemic for many organisations, and GDS is no different. Focusing on a new three-year plan would be a challenge for anyone, but after the struggles of lockdown, even more so.
“People are really tired. Their resilience levels have gone. They’ve dealt with lockdown, they’ve dealt with Brexit, they’ve dealt with coronavirus, and there’s a ton of things you have to do in the background to get all that going. And I’m coming in and saying, we’ve got this exciting, ambitious mission – let’s go. I need to give a hat tip to all the people who have done a real shift over the last year,” says Read.
But the drive for digital transformation is relentless, and its importance has only been highlighted by everyone’s recent experiences. For 15 months it’s been difficult to look ahead, but for GDS the pivot to a new strategy will set the benchmark and re-establish expectations for the future. As Read has stressed, it’s all about delivery now.
Tom Read, GDS
“In three years, I would like to have a single login and a single way of verifying your identity to government. I’d like that to be in place with a really good assisted digital route. I’d like it if I could go into my Gov.uk account, whether it’s a website or an app – I don’t know, by that point – and I’d like to see all the data that government holds on me. I’d like to be able to say what data I allow to be shared between those different services. And I’d like that to be [available for] the services that impact the most people and the most vulnerable people,” says Read.
“It’s about raising the ceiling of what digital government is. I can’t do this without other departments helping and working in partnership, but that’s where I’d like to get to.”