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Interview

Stephen Foreshew-Cain, Government Digital Service

4 May 2016

The government has realised the potential of digital and is putting its new strategy to work

“Digital by default” isn’t a philosophy you would automatically associate with the government but, six years on from launch, the Government Digital Service (GDS) is ramping up its work – with opportunities for technology firms to help, and for the wider business community to learn from its experience.

GDS was set up in 2010 after Martha Lane Fox, now Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho, published a report identifying how far behind government was on technical innovation – and how that debt was growing over time. The first step she recommended to change it was to create a central resource to drive the conversation about “digital government” and set out what “good” would look like if government were to realise the potential of digital.

Its most visible achievement of the first five years has been the launch of the Gov.uk website, more than halving the number of government websites (from 4,000), with more transactions moving online too. But the tech world will have also noticed that it has also been hiring in more people into leadership roles as it has quietly established new ways of thinking and working.

This has all set the scene for what GDS executive director Stephen Foreshew-Cain calls “the second act”, funded by a £450m budget over the course of the parliament.

“We’re now moving into a phase which is exploiting the potential and really putting it to work,” he says, although he adds that “going wholesale” is the most difficult part of the strategy.

Just like any business that is undergoing digital transformation, he explains that it’s a challenge to work out what order to do things in, to avoid unnecessary duplication of efforts or over-complicating the technology that’s required. And, again like many chief executives, he is trying to focus on the customer first to drive both the right structure and process.

“Government is necessarily broken up into a federated estate of departments and agencies, but we shouldn’t let the shape of government pre-determine how we deliver services. We should be sure that services determine how we shape our organisation to deliver them.”

A considered approach

When he took over the top job late last year, Foreshew-Cain restructured GDS from 15 business units to four, to create a more joined-up approach, focusing on the overall digital strategy, data, technology and delivery.

The digital unit has taken the approach of “build it once, build it well and then make it available for use many times over” to deliver consistent, user-centric services and accelerate take up – and it spends as much time looking at offline and operational ramifications of switching to the new platforms.

This is about transforming the relationship between the citizen and the state

“The Minister for the Cabinet Office has spelt out for us that this is about transforming the relationship between the citizen and the state, that even where government services don’t involve choice, they feel they are getting an excellent level of service,” he explains.

The technology unit is about providing civil servants with the right tools to deliver these services, “modernising kit” and making “significant savings” in the process. The data unit, on the other hand, is still in a more theoretical stage, looking at what data the government has, how it is managed, what can be shared, safely and securely, and how it can put it to good use.

Shared progress

But nowhere is this forward-thinking approach more obvious than in Foreshew-Cain’s commitment to “sharing our knowledge, opening up our code and open-sourcing our platform components”.

He continues: “What I would hope is that it could spur the market to think how it can build upon these platforms and services and stimulate new businesses in the economy.”

He highlights the new Gov.uk Verify identity assurance scheme and its Gov.uk Pay platform as examples which have plenty of practical applications in the private sector – and particularly for innovative start-ups.

I hope this could spur the market to think how it can build upon these platforms and services and stimulate new businesses in the economy

“There are opportunities here not just for the government to receive from the market but also to be in a position to offer back to it,” he adds.

And he has a similar take when it comes to talent, in what he describes as a “hot market” in which people are no longer interested in a job for life. “We need to have a more porous relationship with the private sector technology market – so people come into government for a period of time, move out and then possibly back again, each time with skills and knowledge they wouldn’t have had otherwise,” he says.

He sees the fact that more firms in Shoreditch are recognising that there is increased competition from government for talent as them starting to get it right. But he admits there is still work to do around “busting the myths” of working for government. “The digital civil service is getting digital at the heart of government, rather than something added on at the side,” he says.

The role of the private sector

And even though the government has been on a hiring spree, Foreshew-Cain is also quick to point out it’s “not looking to in-source everything”, particularly when the UK has a “very innovative technology space that government should be tapping”.

“I want the private sector to understand that we are open for business and we need suppliers as part of the ecosystem,” he says. “It would be a mistake to think that we could do all this on our own, not only because of the pace of change, but also from the point of view that we’d never be able to hire all the skills we need.”

I want the private sector to understand that we are open for business

He points to the success of the digital marketplace, which aims to make procurement as simple and as fast as possible for all concerned. It has now overseen over £1bn in contracts – more than half of which has gone to SMEs. To date, it has been centred on central government projects, but with proven success should come a broader remit, and Foreshew-Cain believes all public sector organisations, and local government in particular, should be using the platform to find the specialists and services they need.

“GDS has invested significantly in the digital marketplace because I genuinely believe it provides us with the fairest and most transparent way for suppliers of all sizes to get their services into the UK. I want government to be able to buy from the service provider who has got the right skills and services and capabilities that solve the problem that we have,” he explains.

“Government is determined to ensure that we look to the market to give digital innovators the leg-up they need to grow and develop their ideas that have a benefit for government,” he repeats, making clear that when it comes to digital transformation of government, the best technology organisations have a key role to play.

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