Digital is the ambitious government recruit climbing the corporate ladder

IT professionals working in Whitehall are facing the biggest challenge to their careers in more than a decade thanks to the ambitious and aggressive objectives being driven by the Government Digital Service (GDS), which aims to see public services traditionally delivered by legacy IT systems transformed into innovative online digital products.


IT professionals working in Whitehall are facing the biggest challenge to their careers in more than a decade thanks to the ambitious and aggressive objectives being driven by the Government Digital Service (GDS), which aims to see public services traditionally delivered by legacy IT systems transformed into innovative online digital products.

Technology chiefs in central government departments have been handed the Government Service Design Manual – a guide to implementation that they should live or die by – and have been told to get to work overhauling services that up until now have relied upon complex and sprawling IT systems.

The force with which this agenda is being pushed through government is accelerating rapidly. GDS has gone from the ‘cool start-up project’ in Whitehall to a department that has the political clout, thanks to backing from Cabinet Office Minister, Francis Maude, and a solid reputation, following the successful launch of GOV.UK.

Mike Bracken, head of GDS, and his two front men Liam Maxwell, government CTO, and Stephen Kelly, COO, are no doubt putting the digital fear into every IT chief sitting at their comfy Westminster desk. There have been numbers of high profile government CIOs who have tried to make a difference and spun out of the public sector after a couple of years, disillusioned with the pace of change. But there have been more who up until now, and I’m sure with no bad intention, had been able to let the years pass them by as they dealt with the usual handful of suppliers that got a pat on the back  if they didn’t completely stuff up on delivery.

Even if they do stuff up, suppliers still seem to pull in the taxpayers cash (National Programme for IT anyone?).

A recent wave of announcements have made it very clear to those clinging to their cushy outsourcing arrangements that unless you are willing to get on board with the Digital by Default agenda – which could save £1.7 billion a year after 2015 – then you are going to suffer the consequences.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this is a bad thing. Bracken, Maxwell and Kelly have implemented a number of changes in recent months that are not only interesting and innovative for the public sector, but also have the private sector listening.

Apart from savvy renegotiations of commercial contracts with the likes of Oracle, SAP and Microsoft, GDS and its management have introduced a number of changes to government procurement that have drastically opened up doors to SMEs and those with the digital know-how to make a difference – most notably the G-Cloud and Digital Services frameworks.

However, there have been even clearer signs in the past seven days about the growing influence of digital, Bracken and the GDS team. First came the (rather embarrassing) news that GDS was being hauled in to sort out the Department for Work and Pension’s (DWP) flagship, but very troubled, £2 billion Universal Credit project.

DWP will no doubt say that Universal Credit as it stands works, or as they worded it, is ‘viable’. But is that really what you want from a £2bn IT project that impacts millions of people: technology that is viable? I don’t think so. What this has resulted in is a recommendation to MPs that GDS be brought in to deliver an ‘enhanced’ IT system that is more effective.

This is significant. A small technology team working for the Cabinet Office is essentially being asked to come and in sort out the mess created by technology and consulting giants that have been working with Whitehall for years. If GDS pulls it off, it will raise serious questions about the importance of those big contractors that the public sector is so comfortable working with.

Secondly, Computer Weekly reported that interim HMRC CIO, Mark Hall, has not secured a permanent position as CIO, despite a recommendation from his predecessor, Phil Pavitt. Hurd’s leaving note put this down to a competitive application process, which might be the case, but reports have also suggested – although unconfirmed by Computerworld UK - that Bracken and his team weren’t happy with his digital capabilities and this is why he got the chop.

This wouldn’t come as a huge surprise, given GDS’ favoured approach of central government departments appointing a Chief Digital Officer (CDO) and a Chief Technology Officer (CTO,) instead of a CIO.

If this is the case, there has never been a clearer warning to other IT chiefs in government that if they don’t wise up to the digital rumblings in Westminster, their jobs are on the line.

Finally, Computerworld UK recently learned from a reputable source that the government has now blocked 54 subscriptions to analyst powerhouse, Gartner, which were costing a whopping £45,000 each. The principle argument behind this being that departments shouldn’t be costing the public so much money by operating in siloes, and instead should be sharing resources in a collaborative way via a central knowledge pool.

However, the decision represents far more than that. It is a warning to IT chiefs in the public sector that they can no longer hide behind expensive analyst subscriptions, or costly IT suppliers for that matter, to do their job for them. They are being asked to show their user-led, internet driven, digital capabilities as technology leaders, and unless they can do this, they will be at risk.

Despite all of this, delivering the digital vision is not going to be easy. There is a skills gap in the public sector that needs to be addressed. Hopefully the Digital Services Framework will begin to tackle this. The government is also still reliant on many complex IT systems that are more often than not tied into lengthy outsourcing contracts. Getting away from these will require determination and could be costly.

Some of these concerns have been raised by MPs already and shouldn’t just be dismissed as negative naysayers wanting to ruin the fun. The outsourcing arrangements are complex and too often don’t deliver the best value for money, but millions of taxpayers rely on them for every day services. Untangling these arrangements and migrating away from legacy systems that have been operating for decades is going to be a challenge – one that shouldn’t be underestimated.

Building GOV.UK is a completely different beast to sorting out Universal Credit or tackling some of HMRC’s services, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be done. GDS has the potential, if given the time and resources, to completely transform services for the public into intuitive, online, digital products.

Digital, for the time being, is here to stay in government and the GDS team is ambitiously climbing the corporate ladder in government. And those who don’t join it and figure out ways to best create services Digital by Default may find that they end up looking for work as the next ‘VP for the public sector’ for whatever  supplier is willing to take them on board.

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