Getting Brexit done: an interview with UK digital chief Alison Pritchard

By on 16/10/2019

The UK prime minister may want to ‘get Brexit done’, but his Conservative Party has spent 40 months arguing over what that means; meanwhile, civil servants have had to build the digital systems to prepare for this undefined future. Matt Ross meets Alison Pritchard, the Government Digital Service’s interim director general

Civil servants around the world have watched the Conservatives’ handling of EU exit with bemusement, startled by the once pragmatic, pro-business party’s internal battles and its embrace of ever more radical forms of Brexit. For the UK’s civil servants, though, many of their overseas peers express heartfelt sympathy.

Working to address the country’s biggest peacetime delivery challenge in decades, British officials had to operate throughout Theresa May’s tenure as PM under a deeply divided Cabinet. They’ve faced repeated attacks on their advice and motivations. And – perhaps most awkwardly – they’re charged with building the systems to support a post-Brexit world that remains undefined. Thanks to Westminster’s political turmoil, it’s been impossible since June 2016 to predict the nature of the UK’s future relationship with the EU – and, thus, to state with any precision the new functions and capabilities required of its public services.

Yet new functions and capabilities will be required, and departments across government have been working hard to develop them. Officials may not know, for example, the rules that will govern customs declarations or the allocation of rights to Continental EU citizens resident in the UK; but they nonetheless need new systems to administer those processes. And the Government Digital Service (GDS) has been playing a key role here, advising and supporting departments as they prepare for this vaguely-sketched future.

Baptism of hire

Joining GDS as chief operating officer in August 2017, Alison Pritchard led its EU exit work until she became interim director general in August 2019. And she acknowledges the difficulty of working towards an undefined end state: “One major challenge we’ve had is running multiple scenarios; we’re not used to that,” she says. Preparing for various potential exit deals – plus the possibility of a ‘no deal’ exit – “means that the thinking has had to progress with a degree of ambiguity and complexity,” she adds. “Some new skills are required to manage that.”

Pritchard herself has a number of skills that serve her well at GDS. Some of these she developed leading projects outside the centre of government: over three decades as a civil servant, she’s held roles including director of transformational change at the environment department, director of the Government Equalities Office, and head of gambling and licensing at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). Others, she picked up in her work outside government as a comedy writer and producer: “I introduced a little bit of appropriate humour to my Brexit briefings across [GDS], and it allowed us to get into a different kind of conversation,” she recalls. “I cut my teeth on the comedy world, and I’m now utilising a lot of those skills.”

Over the last two years, Pritchard has been working to ensure that – in the words of civil service chief executive John Manzoni – Brexit acts on digital transformation as “an accelerator, not a distraction”. Earlier phases of GDS’s work – “all the capability we’ve built, all the tools, the assurance and standards that we’ve constructed and put in place” – helped equip departments to address this new challenge digitally, she says. And in this phase, GDS has been “joining up the different functions” around individual schemes – liaising with the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) and the commercial profession, for example – and providing direct assistance by “putting in Agile teams to help build systems.”

In helping to develop projects, Pritchard explains, GDS has tried to ensure that their design leaves room for future development. Brexit requirements may be the immediate priority, but “I want to make sure we don’t lose some of the opportunities for the full transformation that was envisaged for many of these services,” she says. So new systems have been built in such a way, for example, that they can be connected together in future years: “Therein lies a whole new portfolio of potential further transformation.”

Deliver what you’re given

Photo by Paul Heartfield

Across the government’s Brexit work, GDS is very much focused on the delivery end. Asked whether the unit was consulted on the government’s proposals to use unspecified technologies to monitor goods crossing between Northern Ireland and Eire – an idea briefly touted by PM Boris Johnson in early October – Pritchard replies that “our focus is on supporting any systems that are required for ‘day one and beyond’ functionality. So we make no judgements on the workability or deliverability of the prime minister’s plans.”

Delivery, though, offers quite enough challenges to keep GDS busy. With over 100 Brexit-related projects gearing up for the given go-live day of 31 October, Pritchard’s team has “done a lot of work on the latter end of programmes, around testing and resilience.” And given that tight deadline, GDS has had to adapt its approach to launching new systems: “Ordinarily, you would run a Beta test on your whole system with a small group” of service users, she explains. “But what we’ve had to do is run a subset of the systems with the whole community. A lot of our system require registration, for instance, so we’ve said: ‘Go ahead and register’.”

This gets the registration process underway, while civil servants continue to develop the wider system’s functionality; but there are reasons why Beta testing is considered best practice. “At some point we’ll need to flick switches to put the new system live – and it’s very difficult to flick that switch back,” says Pritchard. “The scale of operation is difficult to simulate until you get to that stage.”

The risks are obvious; asked whether GDS has a troubleshooting team to assist departments whose system launches go awry, Pritchard explains that “we’ve built a bench of experts that we can deploy at short notice.” Departments “will shout if they need help, the centre will identify any problems, and then we’ll go into fast action to resolve them,” she adds. “Will it be intense and high-pace if we find ourselves in that position? Yes. But we’ll be ready for that period.”

Burning priorities and backburners

The huge demands of Brexit have, inevitably, pushed aside some of government’s longer term digital objectives. “There has been a capacity challenge for government, and therefore a prioritisation challenge,” Pritchard says: many of the digital goals set out in the 2015 Spending Review “we’ve had to look at carefully, and see if we can do it or we have to reprioritise.” In her previous role at the environment department, she adds, “we were hit massively by the EU exit work, and had to look at a series of programmes – including our own internal transformation of IT systems – and work out what was essential”.

Photo by Paul Heartfield

Yet asked about criticisms – including in select committee reports – that GDS has lost momentum, Pritchard replies that the unit has simply evolved to meet changing needs. After its creation in 2011, it had to operate as a “digital disruptor, intervening in technology development for what was quite a young profession.” But many departments now have big, effective digital teams, and GDS’s role has shifted towards guidance and assistance. So nowadays “it’s more difficult to point at single things that GDS itself has made happen, other than through helping to build the capability to achieve these things; doing the joins across departments; and joining up departmental goals through the functional leaders group” – the committee bringing together the heads of each profession.

Meanwhile, she says, GDS has continued to produce both broad plans – she cites the 2017 transformation and 2019 technology innovation strategies – and technical standards. And while the unit has altered its spend controls system – built to ensure that government projects hit a set of digital standards – she maintains that it hasn’t relaxed the regime. “We’ve had to be flexible in engaging with departments who’ve had to bring services to bear at pace,” she says – approving projects on the basis that further work is undertaken, for example. “We’ve been practical and pragmatic in working with departments. But we certainly haven’t approved anything that doesn’t hit the mark.”

To maintain pace on Brexit projects, GDS has put them through a separate process: “We’ve sped it up, and changed the threshold of where those tests are,” she explains. “But that hasn’t led to any reduction in the tests.”

Identifying identity

Asked what she’d prioritise if the all-consuming Brexit project evaporated, Pritchard names data and digital identity. “There aren’t really any technical barriers any more, other than making sure people are abiding by the standards,” she says. “It’s now about working out the use cases and delivering those at scale.”

The data and identity agenda has clearly slowed since April 2018, when Theresa May passed responsibility for data policy to the culture department, DCMS: there has since been no discernible progress in its work to appoint a chief data officer and produce a national data plan, while GDS’s Verify identity verification scheme has found far fewer users – among departments and citizens – than anticipated. But in September, the Cabinet Office advertised for a government chief digital information officer (GCDIO): a new, permanent secretary-level role, charged with overseeing GDS and the Digital, Data and Technology profession.

Could the post help revive the data agenda? “You’d expect someone at that level of seniority to bring further momentum to the joining up of the function as a whole,” she replies. And in a nod to the separation of digital and data policy responsibilities, she comments that the GCDIO will “be sitting at the very top tables, and therefore will be able to influence thinking across departments.”

Asked how she envisages a UK digital identity system, Pritchard says the goal is “an international set of standards whereby you can then join the data” – enabling users to access multiple services via a single log-in, and to link them together. And where does Verify fit in? “Verify is part of the convergence journey,” she replies. “Using Verify and other approaches to get us to a totally ubiquitous set of standards is what the focus is on right now.” Verify, once seen as the end of the journey, has become a waypoint.

Digital directions

Photo by Paul Heartfield

While she awaits the GCDIO’s appointment, Pritchard will be pushing hard on three fronts. She wants to “build our expert service” – sending in teams to help departments on specific projects, perhaps on a chargeable model. She’s keen to turn some of GDS’s strategies into “assurance processes” to enforce compliance: she cites cloud and data standards. And she’d like to see changes to the government’s processes for developing business cases, approving project spending and allocating departmental budgets.

These latter reforms could help address mismatches between civil service processes and the needs of digital projects: the requirement for business plans to specify a scheme’s functionality, milestones and budget, for example, mitigates against Agile project management. “I’m hearing everyone say this: not just digital people, but delivery folk more generally. I’m also hearing Treasury folk start to use similar language,” Pritchard comments.

Processes could be altered to require “a range of numbers rather than absolutes”, she suggests, and to review projects grouped into portfolios so “you can trade off risk on one set of activities against another.” Such changes would permit more experimentation and iterative development, she says, “but you can’t do that if you have the continued, very binary and linear relationship with a spending review envelope.” Changing these processes will not be an easy task, but GDS is working with the IPA and the commercial function to explore the potential: “The time is right to do something different,” she believes.

To do something different here, Pritchard will need all the tools at her disposal, including GDS’s relationships with those other functions, the support of digital professionals across government – and, perhaps, the humour that enlivened her Brexit briefings. And this must work both ways: are her experiences at GDS providing inspiration for her comedy work?

“Anything that goes on around you, you park in your brain and say: ‘That’s quite interesting, there’s an angle on that’,” she replies. “I’m still talking to my [comedy] writing colleagues: we’re a network. And I’m finding that I’m so focused on EU exit, to get my other news I have to read what they’re up to – which is often satire.”

And then, she adds, she only has to “work out what’s satire and what’s real: at the moment, it’s quite an interesting challenge.”

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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