Public Services > Central Government

DCMS faces calls for early explanation of data policy and future digital plans

David Bicknell Published 02 April 2018

Twitter response over GDS and digital government future continues over Easter weekend after written government statement on data policy and governance shift


The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) – and the government as whole - is facing calls this week for an early, clear positioning on its future plans for digital government.

It follows the publication of a written statement to Parliament late last week over the transfer of responsibility for data policy and governance to DCMS from the Government Digital Service (GDS) and the Cabinet Office.

The statement, though not technically made on a national holiday, was made so close to the Easter shutdown as to make further meaningful, departmental comment impossible. Meanwhile, Twitter reverberated to a series of tweets from those criticising what they concluded was the demise of digital government and GDS, though some also backed the DCMS move. A tweeted reply from former GDS leader Mike Bracken was largely the catalyst for an outpouring of comment.

The move to shift data policy and governance to DCMS had actually been rumoured for some time and it seemed to be a question of when, not if, an announcement was made. However, the move just before Easter, however, when it could have been announced anytime over the last few weeks, only served to arouse suspicion that the government deliberately put out news when everyone was looking the other way towards Easter. The government, though, does have some form here. A few years ago, it published its Next Generation Shared Services Strategy on December 28th

Bracken said, “So there it is. End of central UK authority for digital, data and technology. Whitehall power structure more important than user needs.”

Others members of the digital great and good weighed in. Jan Joubert , chief executive of Rainmaker Solutions said, “Let’s hope this doesn’t herald a return to the forming of large complex projects (this time digital) awarded to fat outmoded suppliers who have never delivered change or actually been motivated to make a positive difference. Introducing complexity where it’s not needed.”

Another former GDS leader, Stephen Foreshew-Cain said, “The anticipated and entirely avoidable decline. Cowardly to announce this way.”

Lilly Evans , a Conservative councillor at the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, said, ”How good is this move at the time Government is talking about the importance of IT solution for electronic checks on smooth borders? What capabilities has DCMS to deliver? To think that cybersecurity across all departments ranks this low in importance.”

Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley, Louise Haigh, the shadow policing & crime minister and former shadow digital economy minister said, "What a shame. This represents real downgrading of the digital government agenda."

Local government digital representatives also tweeted their concern. Jos Creese , who has a long track record in IT and digital delivery in local government said, “The issues were deep-rooted and go back a while I think. The opportunities were abundant and remain so. I would so like to have had a chance to input. “

Replying to a tweet that  suggested local government should learn from central government leading the way, Creese said, “Great idea, but in practice, it has always, in my 30-year career, been the other way round .. practical delivery, innovation & entrepreneurial exploration has come from local to central. Just less visible. @MTBracken and @ianwatmore were notable exceptions in thought leadership.”

The chair of LocalGovDigital Phil Rumens said, “This happens in microcosm in #localgov too, sad to see it on the larger stage though. It needs more good people inside, rewiring the machine, or it'll just revert back to type.”

However, not everyone was surprised by the government's statement. A frequent GDS critic, David Moss , said, “The move was trailed long before yesterday's announcement. No-one can be surprised by it.”

Between some, the debate was fiercely passionate, not least between 'corporate cartographer' Simon Wardley and Bracken.

Wardley said, “A good start but not enough IMHO. I'd hope to see spend control and in fact, the entire lot shift to DCMS under a Cabinet level minister with permanent responsibility for digital.”

He added, “data, policy, technology delivery, spend control should ALL be under one Cabinet level minister. The power reinforced and strengthened. Lessons should be learned and we should embark on the 2nd wave of change, the counter play has been allowed to go on for too long.

“For me, the whole Cab Office approach has yo-yo'd from too much of the "tyranny of the agile" fermenting rebellion to allowing the ridiculous idea of distributing spend control to gain credibility. A second dose of medicine is needed, hopefully DCMS can grow and deliver this.

“I view the move to DCMS (and it should be the lot) as an opportunity to restart the process, to create a more powerful GDS."

He explained, ”with a view of rebuilding GDS, creating a more powerful structure then a Cabinet level minister (i.e. @MattHancock) and someone who truly understands its importance and can drive it (i.e. @liammax) is what you need."

But, Bracken argued, “Moving a central play to the margins of Govt is pointless. To make whole of govt reforms we need a nexus of tech, data and digital services in one central function, with a strong financial lever. In UK system, that means Cabinet Office or HMT. Once in a marginal department, it has little clout across govts, no spend controls, has to jump through annual treasury process and has to compete with other interests within the dept, let alone across Govt. And it needs an engineering capability to act for the whole of govt.  

“From Argentina to USA, Singapore to Estonia, Canada to China, there is a reason why digital units of this type are placed in the heart of govt, with strong financial levers.”

Wardley replied, “Mike, GDS is dying in the Cabinet Office. From no Cabinet level representation to Manzoni and the view we can distribute controls to Depts. Its focus has become more about training. The move by DCMS gives it a chance ... sure, it's not the ideal but it's a chance.”

Alan Mather today tried to calm things down, saying, “Did I miss something? I see data policy and governance moving, nothing else. The same people move and do the same thing in a new department. Why all the angst?”

GDS is expected to set out its future plans at an event, Sprint 18 , it is hosting next month.









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