The Changes At GDS And HMRC Signal The Demise Of Digital In Whitehall

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ANALYSIS: The departure of Stephen Foreshew-Cain and Mark Dearnley could mean the end of GDS as we know it

The Government Digital Service’s (GDS) executive director Stephen Foreshew-Cain is being replaced by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)’s director general for business transformation, Kevin Cunnington.

HMRC’s chief digital and information officer Mark Dearnley is leaving his post and just weeks ago, the Home Office scrapped its CDO role.

There are times when people read too much into things, but this isn’t one of them.

The changes that have come about this week are not independent of one another – they are the fallout of what looks to be a confused and fragmented government digital strategy.

Government digital failure

Stephen Foreshew-Cain GDS 2Foreshew-Cain had an unenviable task of replacing the much revered Mike Bracken, but when the former took up the executive director role, he emphasised that he had been running GDS for up to a year in what would ultimately be a transitional period.

When Bracken left, there were fears that GDS could be broken up and that there would be a reduction in investment.

Such concerns heightened when many of his senior colleagues departed with him, but there was optimism that there would be stability under Foreshew-Cain, particularly after the government announced that it would invest £450 million into GDS in the November 2015 spending budget.

GDS’s former deputy director Tom Loosemore, one of Bracken’s first appointments in his new role at the Co-Op, tweeted that Foreshew-Cain was “one of the finest leaders” he had ever met, and that his departure would be a sad loss to the government.

Another former GDS team member Andrew Greenway suggested that Foreshew-Cain’s departure was an inevitable consequence of a battle between big departments who want to be left to their own devices and those who seek to direct from the centre.

Apocalyptic future?

Greenway sees an apocalyptic future for GDS:

“GDS is following the course charted by other successful centralised reformers in government. Icarus-like soaring for a few years,” he said. “The occasional flutter of feathers. Then a headlong dive into the timeless, inky depths of the bureaucratic abyss. The sun always rises, Whitehall always wins.”

Dearnley’s departure lends more support to this theory. After all, he has been leading HMRC’s most gruelling IT project to date – the transition away from its £800 million-a-year Aspire contract. MPs had noted that the success of this transition relied heavily on “firm and consistent leadership” – something they will no longer have.

Either way, it seems like GDS – or indeed the Civil Service CEO John Manzini is yet to answer a key question: should digital transformation come from within the centre of government, or should it come through siloed departments?

Those who have worked at GDS clearly want the former, but those at the head of big government departments would prefer the latter.

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As Greenway added in his blog:

government parliament big ben public sector bus clouds © CristinaMuraca Shutterstock government parliament big ben public sector bus clouds © CristinaMuraca Shutterstock“Manzoni came in to manage relations between the centre and the departments from a position of strength. From the outside, it now looks like he is being toyed with by the Civil Service’s most experienced turf warriors in HMRC and DWP. Permanent secretaries are gleefully reclaiming their territory.”

From the outside looking in it sounds as if Whitehall permanent secretaries are winning the battle to get rid of digital leaders within government; not understanding their importance to wider objectives.

If this trend continues, then perhaps those who thought that that the hysteria surrounding Bracken’s departure last year was merely a knee-jerk reaction will realise that his exit may well have been the first domino to fall.

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