Groundbreaking digital reforms to open up Whitehall to the public are under threat from a power-grab by senior civil servants, Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson has warned.
Blogging for HuffPostUK, Watson said that ‘under the chaos caused by Brexit’ and Theresa May’s reshuffle, critics of the Government Digital Service (GDS) are preparing to water down its remit and effectively dismantle it.
With a new head of the GDS appointed on Monday, there is speculation that it would effectively be shifted away from the Cabinet Office and big IT corporations were set to muscle back in on Government contracts.
In what was dubbed by one former insider as a “day of the long digital knives”, current GDS executive director Stephen Foreshew-Cain was replaced by Kevin Cunnington, who was himself squeezed out of the Department for Work and Pensions.
The GDS was set up by the LibDem-Tory Coalition in 2010 with a mission to deliver internet-friendly public services, centralise all Whitehall department websites and cut IT bills and waste.
Headed by former Guardian online chief Mike Bracken, it brought digital expertise into Whitehall after years of civil servants being outmanoeuvred by giant IT contractors.
Its Gov.uk website has won global acclaim, saving £4 billion in IT costs while simplifying services through reforms such as the end of the tax disc and paper driving licences, cutting legal fees and speeding up some services at the click of a mouse.
But Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood is long thought to have been a sceptic and some departmental permanent secretaries are keen to regain control over their own IT strategies.
Civil service chief executive John Manzoni announced that Kevin Cunnington, the current director general for business transformation at DWP, will take over as the new head of the GDS.
The move sparked further fears among reformers after a summer where individual Whitehall departments are suspected of trying to regain control over digital policy.
Watson said that the Home Office has already quietly removed its most senior digital leader and that similar positions in the Cabinet Office and DWP were under threat. HMRC’s chief digital and tech officer will quit next month.
“It is a classic Whitehall power grab carried out while the chaos caused by Brexit is still unfolding,” he writes.
“While Cabinet members familiarise themselves with their new roles, the Government Digital Service (GDS) is under threat, with a Whitehall plan to undermine it already well advanced. Unless it’s stopped, a decade of digital progress in central government could be undone.
“The mandarin machine is taking advantage of the summer hiatus to launch a minor coup, with the Sir Humphries’ of Whitehall effectively trying to repatriate powers to their respective departments. The new cabinet office Minister, Ben Gummer, must not allow them to succeed.”
In 2014 the Wall Street Journal described GDS as “the gold-standard in the global world of digital government” and under the leadership of former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude it saved millions by offering contracts to hundreds of small and medium sized firms rather than a handful of IT giants.
Watson pointed out that when the DWP ran big IT projects the cost almost always went up and delays ensued as civil servants lacked the expertise to deal with outside contractors.
He warned that if the ‘minor coup’ succeeded, the public could face more examples of the DWP’s ill-advised experiment to place the benefits system “on the blockchain”.
“It planned to use the cryptographic payments system pioneered by digital currencies like Bitcoin to restrict the items claimants could spent their money on – so no cigarettes or alcohol, for example, only food and other essentials.
“Thankfully, there is a simple way to prevent the good work from being undone. Theresa May’s new Government must renew the Digital Service’s political mandate for this Parliament and beyond.”
Minister for the Cabinet Office Ben Gummer confirmed on Monday that Cunnington had been appointed.
Gummer praised the “outstanding legacy of Mike Bracken and Stephen Foreshew-Cain [his successor]”.
He said Cunnington would work with governments departments “to continue the transformation of government services so that we can better serve the public, and to continue the global leadership in digital transformation that GDS is rightly famed for here and abroad.”
Bracken left the GDS last September and Maude is no longer a Government minister.
Maude said last week that if Whitehall’s own internal IT systems had been revamped more quickly it could have changed perceptions.
“Then the civil service would have said, ‘Well these weird hippies have suddenly produced some IT I can work with’.”
Bracken said recently that some senior civil servants were clearly not on board with his internet-savvy specialists and he felt he had been set up to fail in some instances.
“The system is not set up to do stuff. It’s set up, frankly, to have an intellectual pissing match around how its things should be.
“So I just brought my own delivery machine with me and said to [former Minister] Francis Maude: ‘What I need mostly is an office outside of Whitehall and I need complete freedom to hire whoever I want to hire.’
“And we hired insanely talented internet-era technologists and gave them a chance to change government, and the great thing about them is they move at such pace. They move so quickly that they can deliver in the time it takes to have the meeting to discuss whether to do the thing in the first place. And they did, time and again.”