Dismay at GDS data policy shift

Responsibility for UK data policy is shifting from the Government Digital Service to DCMS – causing consternation among senior figures that the move downgrades digital in government by moving it from the centre to a single department. Julian Blake reports.

WhitehallPrime minister Theresa May quietly confirmed the controversial news in a written statement on March 29, just as MPs were heading for the Easter recess. She said responsibility for data policy – including data sharing, data ethics, open data and governance – would shift from GDS to DCMS from April 1, under secretary of state Matt Hancock (pictured).

May said the coming together of data policy in one department move would help “ensure the UK is fully realising the benefits of the data economy for all”. She said GDS would “continue its work supporting the ongoing digital transformation of government, building digital capability in the Civil Service and championing service design across government to meet user needs.”

GDS was created by the then coalition government in 2011 to transform UK government services through technology, implementing a ‘digital by default’ strategy that would increase efficiencies and make citizen services more responsive to the needs of users.

It has been a role model for the establishment of dozens of centrally run digital services across the world, including the United States Digital Service, with similar structures in Singapore, Estonia and most recently Germany. France is expected to follow suit soon.

It is the shift from the centre to a single department with arguably less influence that has caused most consternation among critics, with not one but two ex-GDS chiefs taking to social media to express their dismay.

Mike Bracken, the founding chief of GDS from 2011, tweeted that the move was the “end of central UK authority for digital, data and technology. Whitehall power structure more important than user needs.”

“For the record,” he added, “this outcome designed by ‪@liammax and ‪@HeadUKCivServ for ‪@MattHancock. Failure rewarded, announced on national holiday.”

Stephen Foreshew-Cain, who led GDS until 2016, tweeted that the move was an “anticipated and entirely avoidable decline” and blamed “mostly poor stewardship of the amazing delivery teams that have worked so incredibly hard to deliver real change”.

GDS itself is known to have resisted the move, arguing that it is best placed at the centre to implement pan-government data policy – just as the issue is rising up the agenda.

Critics of GDS see a lack of leadership and a need for firmer ownership of data policy moving forward. “Hancock is the right man at the right time,” said the Institute of Government. “DCMS taking over data policy is a positive move, one that should bring political impetus to a vital subject that has slipped down the political agenda in recent years.”

matthancockAmong the biggest achievements of GDS across seven years has been the creation of GOV.UK, a new public information platform offering a single point of access to UK government services.

It has addressed digital identity through the GOV.UK Verify service, giving the public assurance when filing things like tax returns, and rolling out GOV.UK Pay to help people pay for public services.

GDS has also overseen a major change in the contractor supply chain, overcoming high-profile IT failures by reducing reliance on a small group of external suppliers and opening up the marketplace to more and smaller suppliers across the UK. Nearly half of government procurement now comes through SMEs.

Last year GDS published a new government transformation strategy, led by GDS head Kevin Cunnington, to “help government work better for everyone”.

The latest move does shift responsibility for geospatial data policy to the Cabinet Office from two separate government departments, to support the work of the new Geospatial Data Commission in developing a strategy for using public sector location data to support economic growth.