Fixing government digital transformation – lessons from the early days of GDS

Fixing government digital transformation – lessons from the early days of GDS


  • Jerry Fishenden, James Duncan as well as James Findlay

Published: 19 Feb 2021

The UK government’s brand-new critical centre for digital, information as well as innovation, The Central Digital as well as Data Office (CDDO), has a large difficulty on its hands. How does it damage the duplicating cycle of digital government campaigns as well as supply the long-promised transformation of our civil services?

An purpose, warts-and-all public exploration procedure would certainly be a great beginning. It would certainly supply the chance to find out from what’s taken place in the past, baselining the great, the poor as well as the outright hideous of the previous 20-plus years.

Back in its early days, we assisted establish different Government Digital Service (GDS) programs. We believed it would certainly serve to review what we intended to accomplish in a pair of locations, such as main controls as well as the enhanced usage of active, to aid notify that exploration.

Central controls

The GDS main controls are frequently currently described as“spend controls” While the economic facets are very important as well as assisted supply GDS with HM Treasury- backed authority, this is just one reason they were presented.

When GDS began, there was little understanding at the centre right into what was occurring throughoutWhitehall Without standard proof, it was difficult to understand what was working out, what was going severely as well as where main aid or co-ordinated, joint working in between divisions could aid.

To notify our preparation, we required a solitary sight throughout government of whatever that was occurring or prepared. It was a crucial part of situational recognition as well as mapping the landscape– our very own organized exploration, if you such as.

Our objective in developing the main controls was to supply this missing out on understanding: the agreements in position (with whom, what for, their period, price, and so forth), the job being prepared, the open criteria being functioned to, the modern technologies, the prices as well as budget plans as well as where they went, the heritage estate, as well as the team as well as service providers in position. So, whatever that can supply a notified, cumulative sight throughout Whitehall as well as allow us to construct out a shared as well as co-ordinated pipe of existing as well as organized plans, programs as well as systems.

“Organisations are encouraged to work with controls teams to submit forward looks (including for their arms-length bodies) to the Cabinet Office on a regular basis through pipeline reports. Forward looks will also be complemented with meetings between organisations and controls officials.”

Source: Extract from ‘Organisation’ s obligations, Cabinet Office regulates 2014′

It confirmed incredibly tough as well as slow-moving to obtain the standard information called for. There was (as well as is) no typical graph of accounts throughout Whitehall to determine what is being invested where, with whom, why as well as on what. Even within a solitary division, an extensive main sight hardly ever exists. Some of the information we needed to obtain straight from divisions’ providers as well as sector experts. Yes, it was that poor.

On the back of establishing this solitary reliable as well as public sight, we additionally intended to enhance internal capacities. By event the information, we would certainly understand what abilities as well as ability were required to take on typical demands as well as troubles.

“The bench” became our inner label for the growth of an online swimming pool of ability to be supplied both internal, from tiny providers as well as others.

This technological source can be made use of by whoever required it as well as would certainly supply skilled expertise extending whatever from heritage systems running Cobol, to.Net to Ruby on Rails, as well as from Wardley mapping to making use of active at range– whatever abilities as well as knowledge were required to allow us to function jointly as well as efficiently with each other throughout Whitehall.


The usage of active in government long precedes GDS, as this Computer Weekly short article as well as the National Audit Office explain. However, it was rarely well-applied either internal or amongst the distributor base.

Where active was utilized, it frequently had a tendency to enhance historical department plan stovepipes, technological style as well as separated program monitoring as well as distribution, equally as falls had actually done.

This issue was additionally highlighted as one of the considerable “learnings” from the 25GDS “digital exemplars While the exemplars intended to function to common concepts as well as style criteria, they additionally continued in silos, functioning along with as opposed to with each various other.

“Share resources: services, information, data and software components must be shared in order to encourage reuse, avoid duplication and prevent redundant investments. Reuse includes the use of existing services and capabilities that already exist outside of government where they provide best value for money – e.g. identity verification, fraud and debt management, cloud-based commodity services.”

Source: Extract from ‘The technology code of practice, GDS chief technology officer 2013’

Without a purposeful main controls procedure as well as an extensive sight throughout Whitehall, also where active was well utilized, it came to be captive to existing plan, program as well as organisational silos as opposed to adding to an incorporated cross-government technique. As has actually taken place so frequently from 1994 onwards, the main emphasis pulled away right into the renovation of government internet sites providing silo experiences as opposed to on establishing extra contemporary, adaptable as well as pertinent civil services.

Today, much of what is called active just merely isn’t. Instead of being a repetitive, proceeding procedure of civil service renovation, it’s a silo task. It’s falls by an additional name– a collection of consecutive actions identified Discovery, Alpha, Beta, Live.

Discovery frequently does not have a purposeful indicatory base as well as unbiased rigour. It hardly ever involves at the early critical points of social or financial requirement, plan study, evaluation, creation as well as style. It’s commonly decreased rather to individual study as well as site style to apply an established, top-down plan choice. As such, it’s come to be worryingly comparable to creating a traditional innovation company instance.

Neither needs to exploration be only an ahead of time early phase. It requires to be a proceeding procedure that educates renovations throughout alpha as well as beta phases as well as long after going real-time. Instead, the usage of active in Whitehall has mostly defaulted to automating silo plans, procedures as well as procedures.


The abolition of the primary innovation police officer (CTO) duty as well as linked Office of the CTO within GDS saw the press in the direction of open criteria, cross-government systems, much better usage of information as well as application programs user interfaces (APIs), upgrading of main systems, “the bench” and so forth, all start to decrease in significance about the concentrate on internet sites as well as site solution style.

After an appealing beginning as well as significant deal with establishing a real-time, vibrant pipe as well as joint collection of frying pan-Whitehall typical single-interest group– open resource, active, heritage, open criteria, information– a dominating sight created amongst some elderly authorities that none of this was essential.

“Old stuff”– implying agreements, modern technologies, heritage IT as well as even more– would merely be amazingly changed by “new stuff” over the coming years. It was all in some way mosting likely to be very easy, helped with by sheep-dipping civil slaves using “101 instant expert” training courses at brand-new digital academies– training courses that mostly enhance the inefficient split in between plan as well as innovation by concentrating on downstream execution facets such as active as well as “digital” task monitoring.

The solitary, reliable main controls atrophied right into the much narrower procedure of invest controls. As an outcome, there continues to be little general understanding at the centre. The honestly released as well as continually upgraded frying pan-Whitehall pipe has actually never ever taken place.

Agile has frequently end up being a concealing badge of ease pinned on top of the status. As the National Audit Office has actually observed: “Effective governance and accountability structures are vital if teams are to use an agile approach to deliver successful projects.”

In the lack of the understanding as well as partnership supplied by main controls, the capacity to apply significant modification at range as well as to discover as well as merge plans, capacities, criteria, items, solutions as well as procedures was additionally shed.

Lessons discovered– splitting the cycle

This had not been the very first effort at transformation driven by a main group. The roots of digital transformation get to back at the very least to the mid-1990s. The job of GDS mirrors lots of of the experiences of 1997 onwards, when open criteria, shared systems, enhanced internal capacities, active procedures and so on additionally came to be the standard under an earlier Cabinet Office group.

So what should we, as well as the brand-new CDDO, take from all this, apart from the absence of Whitehall memory possibly condemning us to live for life in Groundhog Day?

Improving government, Whitehall as well as our civil services are all political troubles, not ones of innovation alone. Public plan as well as innovation require to be created together, not by one attempting to unilaterally lead as well as trouble the various other.

Every political choice has technological ramifications as well as every technological choice has political ramifications, yet the 2 are hardly ever reviewed, looked into, created as well as made with each other. The possible threats of this schism can be observed in practically driven initiatives to “break down” Whitehall as well as apply solitary main technological systems:

“Our unwritten constitution is a fragile thing. It relies on preventing a centralisation or abuse of powers though the intentional balance achieved by splitting and distributing government into different legal entities, and ensuring that there are checks and balances between those different branches or departments. Cross-government platforms, unless well-designed both individually and collectively, could fundamentally tilt this balance – and provide a single point of oversight, power and control.”

Source: Shared cross-government systems

Until policymaking as well as national politics overtake the opportunities of innovation, it’s difficult to see exactly how significant renovations can be made to the method our public industry functions to the advantage of staff members, residents, companies as well as political leaders alike.

Even when a solid political priest such as Ian McCartney or Francis Maude is included, aiding drive modification as well as develop energy, they stay one singular voice as opposed to being component of a larger cross-party dedication to extreme renovation. When these people go on, significant political sponsorship goes away with them also.

If we intend to be successful where previous initiatives have actually stopped working, our emphasis as engineers could be much better awarded by involving extra effectively as well as honestly not simply with political leaders as well as policymakers, yet with everybody that makes use of as well as appreciates civil services. If the expression “meeting user needs” implies anything, after that possibly it’s time we began there, as well as not with top-down designs of technological modification.

Jerry Fishenden was an elderly technological expert to GDS’s principal innovation police officer as well as later on acting replacement CTO at GDS; James Duncan utilized information from invest controls to develop the Crown Hosting approach; James Findlay was innovation leader for the Department for Transport.

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