The Empire Strikes Back: How the death of GDS puts all government innovators at risk
The UK Government Digital Service(GDS) is dead. I’m sure it will continue to exist in some form, but from what I’ve read it appears to have been gutted of its culture, power and mandate. As a innovator and force for pulling the UK government into the 21st century, it’s over.
The UK government comms people, and the new head of GDS himself will say otherwise, but read between the lines of the stories as well as what former GDS people are saying, and it’s clear: GDS is dead.
These narratives are also aligned as to why. GDS was killed by what the Brits call “Whitehall.” This is short form for the inner and elite circles of the UK public service somewhat cruelly depicted in “Yes, Minister.” Their motive? GDS represented a centralization of IT control, and the departments — for whom GDS frequently found savings of tens of millions of pounds and provided effective online services on behalf of— didn’t like seeing their autonomy and budget sucked away by a group of IT geeks.
Losing GDS is a tragedy for the UK. But the downside isn’t limited to just the UK. It represents a blow to efforts to rethink and digitize governments around the world.
Because the debates over how governments work are not domestic (they haven’t been for a long time). GDS helped launch a global movement that helped mobilize innovators and politicians interested in helping governments function in a digital age. Copycats sprang up around the world, such as the Digital Transformation Office in Australia and the United States Digital Service in the US at the national level, as well as others at the regional and local level. (For example, the Province of Ontario, which has a fantastic digital team, is currently hiring a Chief Digital Officer to lead a similar type of org.)
While working independently, these organizations share a common sense of mission and so trade best practices and lessons. More importantly, a few years ago they benefited from a massive asymmetry in information. They understood just how disruptive the innovation they were seeking to implement could be. And not from a technology perspective, but to the organizational structure and distribution of power within the public service.
As it became clearer to the rest of the public service in the UK just how far-reaching GDS’s vision was, and how much thinking digitally challenges the way senior public servants in places like Whitehall think… that asymmetry in knowledge and capacity didn’t diminish, but the asymmetry in awareness and implications did. And so the center fought back. And it has far more power than any GDS might.
But it isn’t just in the UK. I suspect the existence of GDS and its global network has activated a global counter-movement among senior mandarins. Public servants are connected across international borders by shared alma maters, common international organizations and professional groups, cross-border projects, etc.… don’t think for a second that that global network hasn’t been activated (particularly among Treasury Board officials) to what some see as a new threat.
To be clear, this isn’t a GDS good, Whitehall bad piece. For anything to fail there is probably some shared responsibility. And assigning blame doesn’t really matter. What I care about it preserving what I and many others believe are important efforts to modernize governments so that the effectiveness of government, and trust in its institutions, are maintained.
So what does matter is, if you work for a digital service outside the UK, it is time to go double down on political cover and/or to reach out to the senior public servants around you and build some alliances. Because your Whitehall equivalent definitely has relationships with the UK Whitehall, and they are asking them what they think and know about GDS, and their story probably isn’t a good one.
The empire of traditional siloed bureaucracy is fighting back. You probably won’t beat it. So how are you going to engage it?