Losing one is a misfortune. Two?

Ah yes, carelessness. Losing two is carelessness.

The internet has changed what’s possible in public services. That only happens if the shape and culture of Whitehall reflects the new reality. Today feels like a victory for those who believe a government organised along Victorian lines is fit for fixing today’s problems.

The Government Digital Service (GDS) is about to lose its second leader in less than a year. Stephen Foreshew-Cain, in post for less than nine months, is to be replaced by Kevin Cunnington, a senior official previously responsible for Transformation in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

What’s playing out in the shadows of this strange summer is a timeless Whitehall battle. On one side those who seek to direct from the centre, on the other, big departments who prefer to be left to their own devices. It’s a battle that goes back 150 years. The centre is not holding.

That’s OK if everyone is on the path towards improvement. Whitehall’s watchers are not saying this.

Meanwhile, GDS is following the course charted by other successful centralised reformers in government. Icarus-like soaring for a few years. The occasional flutter of feathers. Then a headlong dive into the timeless, inky depths of the bureaucratic abyss. The sun always rises, Whitehall always wins.

The defenestration of GDS has accelerated under the reign of John Manzoni. This is perplexing. The Civil Service’s CEO is there to drive big institutional priorities past departmental parochialism. Digital is one of these, giving it a seat at the top table. Yet as GDS’ influence has degraded, Chief Digital Officer roles in departments are also disappearing. Kevin’s departure comes hard on the heels of the Home Office scrapping their own CDO role.

Manzoni came in to manage relations between the centre and the departments from a position of strength. From the outside, it now looks like he is being toyed with by the Civil Service’s most experienced turf warriors in HMRC and DWP. Permanent secretaries are gleefully reclaiming their territory. Knocking up a bunch of published departmental plans doesn’t feel like the response of a strong CEO. Especially if those plans are described by the normally sober Institute for Government as ‘waffle’ and a ‘laundry list of nice-to-haves’.

In fairness to John, this illustrates his limited licence to act. The person calling the shots is the Cabinet Secretary, Jeremy Heywood; ultimately, this is on his watch.

If history is any guide, we can now expect to see some of the following over the next 12 months. Having taken a big step towards handing GDS’ levers to a traditional ‘big’ department, we can expect the unpicking of previous spending agreements with the Treasury to follow. Control over spending will loosen. Impressive announcements will be made with deadlines landing long over the horizon. Teams will be re-named.

It‘s easy to dismiss this as office politics. But it matters. For GDS’ faults — and there are plenty — it has been responsible for a new generation of bright, committed people into central government. It made a career in public service relevant to people who grew up with the internet. Many of these people will not stay, because there are few other places for them to go in government. They’ll be fine — there is no shortage of companies desperate to hire their talents. Whitehall will suffer. So will everyone reliant on public services delivered by a second-class bureaucracy.

GDS’ driving philosophy was to put public needs before the bureaucratic machine’s own needs. This made it unpopular with some civil servants. It provoked the ire of people at the very top, generally those who spoke behind closed doors with the deepest contempt for the people they served. Yet when it stuck to that philosophy, it worked, and well enough for the idea to be copied.

When it comes to services, it seems our most senior public servants would still rather listen to themselves, rather than the public. They are missing the opportunity to deliver a simpler, fairer state, more likely to meet outcomes ministers want. Which seems careless. At best.

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