UK’s culture department takes data policy from embattled GDS

By on 04/04/2018 | Updated on 04/02/2022
Virtual view: the shift of data to DCMS should help the department support digital industries, the government believes (Image courtesy: European Space Agency)

On Easter Sunday, the UK prime minister gave the culture department control of data policy. The move further weakens the once-pioneering Government Digital Service, whose ‘spend control’ financial levers are also fading, but creates a stronger centre for public and industrial data policy. Matt Ross reports

The UK government has taken responsibility for data policy and governance from the Government Digital Service (GDS) and passed it to the department responsible for culture and media, prompting protests from GDS’s former leaders – who warned that the move undermines the digital agenda inside government. But supporters of the change argue that data is nowadays a major national policy issue, and that its management should sit alongside the responsibilities for regulating the media and supporting digital industries in the newly-renamed Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

Prime minister Theresa May made the announcement in a written statement to Parliament issued just before the UK’s four-day Easter bank holiday weekend, adding that the transfer includes responsibility for data sharing, data ethics, open data and data governance. DCMS is also taking on responsibility for ‘digital signatures’, previously held by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), and will host the secretariat for the cross-government Data Advisory Board and the Data Leaders Network.

GDS weakened

The announcement was quickly condemned by past GDS leaders, with Mike Bracken – head of GDS from its foundation in 2011 until 2015 – tweeting: “So there it is. End of central UK authority for digital, data and technology. Whitehall power structure more important than user needs.”

Bracken’s successor as GDS chief, Stephen Foreshew-Cain – who left government in August 2016 – also attacked the move, tweeting: “The anticipated and entirely avoidable decline. Cowardly to announce this way [on a bank holiday]. And mostly poor stewardship of the amazing delivery teams that have worked so incredibly hard to deliver real change over the years at GDS.”

And Tom Loosemore, who was deputy director of GDS for nearly five years to October 2015, said: “So UK government data policy is now in the weakest and most easily-ignored department, derided as the Dept of Fun by rest of Whitehall. Why? Egos, I’m afraid.”

At the Department of Fun

In Bracken’s and Loosemore’s opinions, the move of data policy and governance has been arranged to expand the roles of culture secretary Matt Hancock and Liam Maxwell, the government’s national technology adviser, who is also based in DCMS. Both previously worked in the Cabinet Office, where Hancock was the lead minister until July 2016 – when May became PM, and moved him to DCMS as minister of state for digital and culture. He was promoted to culture secretary in January, and he and Maxwell have since pressed hard inside government to take over the data brief.

Bracken argued that the shift of data policy is harmful because “to make whole of government reforms we need a nexus of tech, data and digital services in one central function, with a strong financial lever.” In the UK system, he added, these powers must be held in Cabinet Office or HM Treasury.

“Once in a marginal department, it has little clout across [government], no spend controls, has to jump through annual [Treasury budgetary] process and has to compete with other elements within the dept, let alone across govt,” Bracken tweeted. “And it needs an engineering capability to act for the whole of govt.”

An emerging issue

However, one current GDS staffer told Global Government Forum that the shift is valuable in providing a wider and more balanced view of data across government. GDS has always viewed data as a crucial raw material for integrated public services, the civil servant argued, “but data’s bigger than that. It’s a new asset and a currency on which everything is increasingly dependent, and we need to protect people and ensure that their data is being used properly and ethically by UK industry and commercial services as well as within government.”

Citing recent scandals over the use of data by companies such as Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, the official said that data “needs regulating: government should be setting the standards over how it’s used – and actually that sits better with DCMS.” The culture department is, they added, “building a centre of excellence for data innovation, particularly artificial intelligence. And there are some very difficult questions to answer and definitions to produce here.”

The instinct inside GDS would always be to view data as a tool for public service delivery, they warned – arguing that DCMS is better placed to try to address some of the huge policy challenges presented by the use of data by major tech and media firms. DCMS is responsible for protecting the public interest in new fields of technology such as analytics, AI, the ‘internet of things’ and 5G communications, they added, as well as for supporting the growth of digital industries; and this demands control of government data policy as well as outward-facing regulatory and industrial strategy data matters.

The announcement was also welcomed by Gavin Freeguard, the head of data and transparency at think tank the Institute for Government, who highlighted Hancock’s interest in data and called the transfer “a positive move, one that should bring political impetus to a vital subject that has slipped down the political agenda in recent years.”

He did, though, note that data “is intertwined with digital and technology, so GDS still has a vital role in implementation. DCMS and GDS will need to work closely together if the government is to have a coherent approach.”

Spend controls spent

The loss of data comes during a difficult period for GDS, which is steadily losing the ‘spend control’ powers – Bracken’s “strong financial lever” – which have given it the ability to shape digital technologies and programmes across government. Introduced alongside the foundation of GDS, these required delivery departments to seek GDS approval for spending on digital projects – ensuring that they would fit the GDS’s citizen-centric model. But 18 months ago new GDS chief Kevin Cunnington set out a much more relaxed approach to the use of spending controls, telling Computer Weekly that financial levers are “a bit adversarial” and talking instead of regular informal meetings to ensure that departments are going in the “right direction”.

With a slew of major, Brexit-related IT programmes coming down the tracks, GDS’s current leaders – under pressure from departmental ministers eager to avoid any delays – are now stepping back from spend controls. Worried that the approval system would become a bottleneck, and that departments lack the skills and capacity to build new systems to GDS standards by the time Britain leaves the EU, Cunnington’s team are piloting a shift to departmental governance of digital projects – with GDS providing an auditing and oversight function. In exchange, GGF understands, GDS principles are to be built into departments’ governance systems.

Responding to Bracken’s tweets on the data issue, digital strategy specialist Simon Wardley warned against “the view we can distribute controls” to departments. It’s essential, he argued, that “the lynchpin of spend control is maintained. The real danger is the weakening and dispersing of spend control [sic]. That’s the bit which should have been sending alarms [sic] bells ringing.” But with several departments already trialling the new system, known as the “pipeline process”, the direction of travel seems firmly set.

Once were warriors

In adopting the pipeline process, the UK government is abandoning an approach which it pioneered and popularised: creating a strong central digital unit, and using spending controls to require departments to comply with new techniques in service design, procurement and project management.

“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,” Bracken tweeted. “Moving elements of it to a much-derided, non-delivery dept isn’t progress.” He added, though, that he’s “a long-term optimist for UK govt as agile and service design cultures deepen.”

Responding, Teresa D’Andrea, director of enterprise interoperability at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, tweeted: “GDS was a model for many [governments], including Canada… Thanks GDS for starting it all.”


Asked for a comment, the Cabinet Office replied:Technology spend controls and GDS governance remains under the remit of GDS. We will shortly be publishing updated guidance regarding our spend controls. Spending controls for technology have always been assessed against government standards for all projects, in alignment with Cabinet Office Controls.”

The announcement by May argues that “the expanded Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport brings together in one place data policy for both government and the wider economy. This will support work, led by DCMS, to ensure the UK is fully realising the benefits of the data economy for all.

“GDS will continue its work supporting the ongoing digital transformation of government, building digital capability in the civil service and championing service design across government to meet user needs.”

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.

One Comment

  1. S Wright says:

    What a well-written, researched and presented article – Thanks Matt and GGF

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