12 August 2015

As the new leader of the Government Digital Service (GDS) is unveiled, Jonathan Pearson wonders what the change might mean for the government’s digital transformation agenda.

A week after Mike Bracken announced that he was leaving his post as the head of GDS to join the board of the Co-Op group as Chief Digital Officer, GDS’ current Chief Operating Officer, Stephen Foreshew-Cain announced on the GDS blog: “I’ve been running GDS for a year, now I’m stepping up to lead it.”

Foreshew-Cain’s post also brought news that four members of the Government Digital Service’s leadership team would follow Bracken out the door. Deputy Director Tom Loosemore, Strategy Director Russell Davies, Design Director Ben Terrett and Head of User Research Leisa Reichelt are all due to leave the organisation in the autumn, for reasons they outline on their personal blogs (Reichelt is taking up a similar role with the Australian Government, the others are looking for new opportunities).

The reshuffle at GDS comes at an important time for the government’s digital transformation agenda. Cabinet Office Minister Matt Hancock delivered his first speech here in May, outlining his vision for how digital services could lead to the “biggest revolution of our times”. He continued by calling for a civil service that is more “open, innovative, collaborative”, all areas in which digital transformation could unleash potentially enormous gains.

While it was not universally popular, GDS’ work over the last parliament, notably the creation of the GOV.UK site, is among the best examples of the civil service transforming itself to deliver better services for less. But this transformation has only just begun and as the IfG and others have often noted, cross-Whitehall reforms are often fragile and can quickly lose traction.

iStock_000012000602XSmallThe improvements of the last five years are just beginning to bed in and if GDS is to undergo a fundamental change in direction as some have speculated it might, these improvements would certainly be at risk.

No one doubts that Whitehall’s institutions need reforming and that improved digital services and increased digital capability are among the key enablers of that reform. If GDS retains the authority and resources to drive the digital agenda following the spending review, progress should continue. If it does not, civil service leaders will need to be certain that there is the capability and leadership in departments to successfully take up that challenge themselves.

Foreshew-Cain believes the sudden turnover in leadership is no cause for concern. GDS still has the backing of civil service Chief Executive, John Manzoni and Matt Hancock, and its focus will continue to be on delivering on their priorities and preparing, like the rest of government, for November’s spending review.

Following Bracken’s departure, there was some speculation in the trade press that it was the prospect of cuts to GDS’ budget and headcount as well as a potential shift in the government’s digital strategy that were behind his decision to move on. It remains to be seen whether the scale of transformation that Bracken envisaged – not least, building government as a platform – will still be within GDS’ reach following the spending review.

Update – August 13: Bracken confirmed to The Times that his decision to leave was partially because of impending cuts to GDS’ budget.