The rise and fall of GDS: lessons for digital government

By on 09/07/2018 | Updated on 04/02/2022
Mike Bracken, the former head and founder of GDS

Founded in 2011, the UK’s Government Digital Service led the world in transforming online services; but Britain’s digital reforms have since slowed. When three of the key figures in GDS’s foundation met to consider its legacy, they identified the reasons why – and explained how other governments can learn the lessons. Matt Ross reports

When examples of genuine best practice are thin on the ground, those that do exist can end up becoming a cliché – their inevitable appearance in slide shows serving to highlight the paucity of other compelling case studies.

In the UK’s experience of government digital services, this has long been the fate of DVLA: the Swansea-based Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, whose digital interfaces such as road tax payment and ownership registration led the way in providing accessible, convenient and user-focused services for the public.

But DVLA didn’t always have that reputation, as Mike Bracken – who in 2011 became the first director of the Government Digital Service (GDS), under the reforming Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude – recalled last week at a panel debate run by think tank the Institute for Government. When he planned a visit to the agency’s Wales HQ soon after the GDS’s foundation, he told the audience, “everyone said: ‘Don’t touch that thing in Swansea. It’s held together with sticky tape’.” Nonetheless, he went – and found that these warnings had been “a huge understatement!”

A success story

Yet within a couple of years, DVLA had become the poster boy for public digital technologies in the UK – and compelling evidence of the ability of a central digital unit, working with a willing government body, to transform services for users. In the five years or so since, the digital unit model has been adopted by many other countries – from the US to Singapore, Argentina to Australia.

The GDS model is “becoming the new normal for governments around the world,” said Bracken, who left the civil service in 2015 and now runs international consultancy Public Digital with other GDS veterans. But as he and his fellow panellists acknowledged in response to questions from the panel chair, Institute for Government programme director Daniel Thornton, the UK’s own digital transformation has come off the boil in recent years.

Martha Lane Fox, the digital entrepreneur whose 2010 report set out the blueprint for GDS, was clear about the unit’s achievements: “GDS has done way beyond what I imagined we could do when I started writing that report,” she said. However, she added, “it is not enough – and the absence of deep digital leadership and ambition in this country is profoundly disturbing.”

Where’s the vision?

There is, Baroness Lane-Fox warned, “an absence of really deep thinking about how we as the UK are going to transform ourselves for the benefit of all”. Major changes are required across government and the public services, infrastructure and transport, skills and education; but Lane Fox identified a lack of political vision and ambition which is “extremely alarming – and I can’t overestimate how important I think that is for our survival over the next 2-5 years.”

Ian Watmore, who joined the UK government in 2004 as chief information officer and later ran the Cabinet Office – which hosted GDS – used carefully moderate language; as the serving civil service commissioner, he’s still a public servant. Yet it was also his view that the digital government agenda “needs new momentum”. Perhaps, he said, culture secretary Matt Hancock – who in April won control of data policy from the GDS  – can provide it.

The GDS is, “overwhelmingly, a big success story,” added Watmore. But government has “never really cracked collectively that dichotomy between doing things online and the big, old-fashioned, transactional systems on which the world still depends.” Many digital services provide a new, more streamlined and accessible face for those legacy systems, he said, but in many cases they’re “still whirring away behind the scenes, powering what we do.”

Baroness Lane-Fox, whose 2010 report led to GDS’s foundation

Obstacles inside government

On the question named in the title of the event – has the GDS been successful? – the panel’s answer was a confident ‘yes’. But Bracken was clearly frustrated by the obstacles GDS encountered in pursuing ‘government as a platform’: the provision of standardised digital services, such as identity verification, user communications and online payment, for use across government departments.

“Many of the people running departments fundamentally believe that the platform model takes away their power. And they believe that because power in Whitehall is often perceived as: how many of the levers in my world do I control?” he commented. “The culture of sovereignty in departments is phenomenal.”

This culture didn’t spring out of nowhere: constitutional factors – such as permanent secretaries’ personal accountability to parliament for their budgets, and the model of individual ministerial accountability – give departmental leaders few incentives to collaborate, and plenty of reasons to hold their powers close. But its consequence is, said Bracken, that when the centre pushes for departments to share services, “the real pushback comes from the operational model of Whitehall.”

For Bracken, “the Whitehall model – the ‘I win, you lose’ model – looks like a parlour game; a waste of time.” And he doubts that things are changing in the UK: “Reform of the organisational structure is not coming from within. The power structure is far too baked-in.”

The power of culture

Bracken’s criticism was not of individuals, he emphasised, but of “a leadership culture that puts sovereignty ahead of service users. Until that changes, it’s always going to be a tough struggle.”

Watmore was sympathetic: a handful of “big beast” departments, he commented, employ the vast majority of civil servants. “They are big organisations, and regard themselves as entire entities that should run their own things. So trying to effect change through that is really complicated.”

And below that senior leadership culture, suggested Lane Fox, the civil service’s approach to promotion, its attitude to risk, and its fear of media and political criticism holds back those civil servants who might otherwise lead digital change. Pointing to problems in “the incentive structures and how you get rewarded for things, the risk appetite,” she called for more space for “creativity, entrepreneurialism and imagination in the system. Because there are lots of amazing people in the civil service who know the answers, but they’re not given the empowerment to go forward”.

As Bracken’s desire to be diplomatic gradually surrendered to the frustrations of his four years at GDS, he was asked about HM Treasury’s approach to GDS. HMT was, he replied with feeling, “the single most toxic culture that we had to deal with. I have no idea how you can manage to recruit all your young intake and not one of them uses Facebook!”

Many Treasury officials, Bracken believes, simply didn’t understand either the opportunities around digital technologies, or the financial structures required to realise them. “You’re talking to people who are incredibly highly-educated, very wise in the ways of Whitehall, and almost deliberately living in an analogue age,” he said. “Alignment with the Treasury was probably the biggest single problem we had in GDS.”

Key lessons from the GDS experience

Asked to identify the lessons of their time at GDS for other governments, the panel picked out a handful of core issues – starting with the need for heavyweight political backing.

It’s crucial for digital leaders to enjoy “proximity to political power, whether it be a cabinet or a presidential system,” commented Bracken; he pointed to Argentina as “the single most impressive country in terms of rapidly rolling out platforms; and that’s because they have access to the centre and strong support.”

In the UK, he added, “until politicians say: ‘We’re going to fundamentally change how we’re set up,’ I don’t see ideas like platform models working.” And Baroness Finn, a former special adviser to GDS’s ministerial champion Francis Maude, commented from the audience that “it needed to be mandated: all the departments needed to adopt the common standards, otherwise it’s not going to work. The Whitehall tussles are always about: ‘I can do it better in my department,’ but we’re depriving our citizens.”

Civil service commissioner Ian Watmore, the former permanent secretary and civil service reform chief who oversaw GDS

A changed approach to leadership

Change also demands a new approach to leadership, explained Watmore – whose job as civil service commissioner gives him a key role in appointing top officials. “We need leaders who are prepared to ask for forgiveness and not for permission,” he said, arguing that they must be both transparent about what they’re doing, and really good at doing it – “because if they screw up they won’t be leaders for much longer, and the leaders who come in after that will be the wrong sort.” Success, on the other hand, “gets a virtuous circle going, and people will want to do things in the same way – and that will become the route to the top.”

This kind of approach, added Lane Fox, demands “a higher level of digital understanding across government, in the civil service and in the associated services beyond it.” Given that understanding, pursuing digital transformation “doesn’t feel high-risk; it feels absolutely standard, and the risk lies in not doing it.”

Raising the level of digital nous in government demands better training; but it also means tapping into the existing communities of civic digital professionals outside government, noted Bracken. And he called for “open communication” by digital leaders about their goals and projects: some officials were initially wary of publishing blogs, he recalled, but doing so attracted sympathetic professionals inside and outside government.

Follow the money

Finally, Bracken returned to the importance of support in the finance ministry. “The investment money required is, in government terms, small – but the impact [of digital investments] in society is massive,” he said. “Having someone who understands that in the Treasury is crucial.”

“There are treasuries around the world that are rapidly gripping this idea and putting these skills right at their centre,” he added, naming France, Uruguay and Mexico. “And we’re not. It’s as simple as that.”

Some of the GDS’s greatest achievements, Bracken believes, were won despite – not because of – the civil service’s structures and culture. The GDS and the DVLA’s digital teams, he said, were able to transform the agency’s services – whilst cutting operating expenditure by 19% in two years – because “nobody was looking! Swansea is a long way away, and they had a very good permanent secretary who let them get on with it. But that was the exception.”

The answer, he argued, is not to close the departments, “but to close the departmental thinking that says: ‘If we use my system, I win. If we use yours, I lose’.” Central digital units provide a great tool for catalysing change, building cross-departmental projects and providing support to departments – yet without serious political leverage, they can make little headway. “And the analogue mechanism of Whitehall,” he concluded, “is just not fit for a digital world.”

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.


  1. Paul Kendrick says:

    Just completed the ‘Service Owner Induction Programme’ much learned; and very keen to see ‘The GDS Way’ transposed into ‘The NHS Way’ and brought to address and solve the need for transformation in the NHS.

  2. Judith says:

    I so agree with this article. Spot on. I have worked on a cross departmental digital project for the last 2 years. Senior people resist Agile ways of working or are not trained in it. It is structural – they like waterfall plans as they fit with finance models. It is cultural – allow someone with a bit of Agile flair to act as Scrum Master or allow everyone to have a voice and insight at stand ups and show and tells and the hierarchical nonsense kicks in. Knowledge is power and Agile removes the self importance and feel that senior people must have all the answers. This is so prevalent in DWP.

    • Nian says:

      Yes DWP is a bit like an hour glass, plenty of Agile will at the working and project level and plenty at the top with Mayank but hopelessly constricted in the middle by those outside their comfort zone who spend their time trying to force waterfall systems and structures onto an agile environment.

  3. Simon Young says:

    Fantastic article, the ‘ownership’ issue and toxic cultures is alive and well in local government in West Australia, and the same points are also pertinent there. And while there are a number of people who know how to and want to transform government for the benefit of the people it serves, we continue to see vast sums of tax payer monies disappear into the hands of system consultants and suppliers based on the ‘No Lo’ digital knowledge or outlook of the political council and their appointed managers. Who still are evaluated on the number of people managed rather than the number of services transformed. Maybe a mandated ombudsman with teeth, who gives the people not being serviced or those trying to transform a voice, that will push the political drive to change?

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