He did not confirm what role, if any, the Government Digital Service will play, mentioning the unit just once in a 30-minute speech dedicated to the role of digital in transforming public services.
Whitehall sources say GDS faces a budget and headcount reduction next month when Chancellor George Osborne delivers his Autumn Statement on 25 November, which will reveal the outcome of the government spending review.
But in a speech at the Institute for Government thinktank, Hancock claimed GDS’s budget had been increased by the chancellor in his ‘emergency’ July Budget. “I think you can see that as my vote of support for it”, he said.
Hancock shook off concerns over departures of high-level digital staff such as Mike Bracken and Tom Loosemore this summer.
“GDS has lost half a dozen people but the turnover in GDS is actually much lower than in the Cabinet Office as a whole, so I don’t think it’s had an impact at all on the effectiveness and capability of GDS and there’s a great team at the top,” he said.
Bracken, Loosemore and a number of other top GDS figures have gone to the Cooperative group.
News of Bracken’s departure sent shockwaves across government in August. Whitehall sources told ComputerworldUK it is directly linked to plans to “drastically” reduce the GDS budget and headcount, and the knock-on effect on wider digital transformation.
Hancock would not be drawn on whether GDS’s budget will be cut when asked by ComputerworldUK, but said he sees digital transformation as central “to the effective delivery and transformation of public services over the next five years”.
Several sources have suggested the chancellor could even decide to move GDS from the Cabinet Office to another department, such as the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
“GDS will keep spending controls, but there will be less focus on building things though they will keep on doing cheap discovery and alpha-stage projects,” one well-placed source said.
“The most likely outcome is a reduced GDS with some cross-government work but not as much as originally envisaged,” he added.
Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood has hinted departments will wrest back more power from GDS and other central bodies.
“You can’t run the whole of digital — HMRC’s digital strategy — from the Cabinet Office. It’s a vast organisation. The same with DWP,” he told Civil Service World in September.
Ministers and top civil servants have repeatedly said they are committed to continuing digital reforms– but the role of GDS in that is far less certain.
It may not necessarily matter whether GDS continues to play such a central role. After all, it would be healthy for digital reform to become ‘business as usual’ for departments.
However the fact remains that for ‘Government as a Platform’ and ‘Common Technology Services’ to become more than just buzzwords, there will have to be a coordinating body at the centre with the ability to persuade and cajole departments into collaborating – something they spectacularly failed to do before GDS came into existence.
And, as Bracken and former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude showed in the last Parliament, what does matter is that there is strong leadership.
So the question remains – if GDS will not lead digital reforms, what or who will? We should start to get our answer in four weeks’ time when Osborne delivers his Autumn Statement. Until then, the uncertainty continues.