Insight

Four items for the next GDS leader’s to-do list

August 12, 2019

Following the news that GDS Director General Kevin Cunnington is to take on a role at the International Government Service, it seems a good time to reflect on the journey so far for GDS. What should be high on his successor Alison Pritchard’s agenda?

GDS initially focused on GOV.UK and citizen-facing services, disrupting the ways the government approached digital projects. Once the foundations were in place, there has been a more supportive and collaborative approach. Departments evolved as a result, taking greater ownership of the discovery-alpha-beta-retirement process.

Without GDS, there would be an ever-growing number of bespoke portals offering radically different user experiences. GOV.UK acts as an effective central point that makes it easier for citizens to access the service(s) they need. GDS has put the user firmly at the heart of the process. For citizen-facing services, the central Government departments have made great progress over the last eight years.

The groundwork has been laid. Now it’s time for a new phase that builds on the level of maturity of which the GDS – and the public sector more widely – should be proud. This means finding a path between continuous improvement and continuing to get things done.

  • The Digital Academy was one of Cunnington’s most significant contributions. It has trained more than 10,000 people, and those people have enabled thousands more. Next, the Academy needs to focus on continued process improvement as well as extending its scope to help more people better understand data and how to leverage it in digital services.
  • In the realm of non-citizen-facing services, there is still some inertia when it comes to replacing legacy systems so government can adopt new approaches, techniques and technologies. This is partly due to the complexity of this environment, but it’s also a result of the prioritisation of license and outsourcing revenues by ‘Big IT’ suppliers. GDS needs to highlight good practice in non-citizen-facing services where new approaches have been successful to enable the process of change to continue.

  • The GDS Service Manual needs to be updated to include approaches to data pipelines between services. With some departments and suppliers, such as DCMS, taking the approach of ‘expanding data openness’, the manual needs to reflect the good practice already being delivered. The wider opportunity for government is to evolve from data being held statically to having it streaming through the organisation, enabling faster and better decision-making in workflows and helping to deliver more valuable services for civil servants and citizens.

  • Finally, there needs to be a focus on informing policy with the opportunities created by data-led transformation. GDS needs to facilitate collaboration between policymakers and data specialists within the digital implementations. A virtuous circle of real-time and relevant data provided as services to policymakers needs to be created. This will allow policymakers to frame policies that can be implemented in the most effective digital manner.

Thinking back to government ‘online services’ before GDS brings into clear focus the dramatic changes to collaboration, culture and delivery that the organisation has pioneered. These changes have set the groundwork for the next phase of data-led transformation. Whoever is appointed to lead the next stage of GDS’ evolution, it will require a re-assertion of political will, an extension of the current pragmatic approach to include non-citizen-facing services and ‘presumed open’ data pipelines between departments.

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