‘We proved ourselves to the Treasury’ – one-on-one with former GDS big gun Poss Apostolou
Three months after moving into the private sector, one of GDS’s most dedicated servants tells Sam Trendall about his proudest achievements, and how he will continue to help the government with its digital revolution
Poss Apostolou says the 2015 Autumn Statement showed that GDS had demonstrated effective way of working to the Treasury
For many Westminster watchers, the massive £450m funding boost for the Government Digital Service provided by then-chancellor George Osborne’s 2015 Autumn Statement came as a shock.
But for Poss Apostolou, who worked for GDS from its establishment in 2011 and had risen to head of delivery operations by 2014, it came as validation.
“We were given the financial backing to continue the work that we had done over five years,” he tells PublicTechnology. “It showed that GDS had demonstrated a way of working that was appreciated by the Treasury.”
Seven years ago, Apostolou was working for Directgov when responsibility for the now-defunct government digital service, and predecessor to GOV.UK, was moved from the Department for Work and Pensions to the Cabinet Office.
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“I was one of the few people that was transferred,” he says.
Within a year, the government had created the Government Digital Service, beginning with a handful of people working on prototypes for a new-look online presence for the UK government. GDS was first mentioned publicly in March 2011, and formally launched near the end of the year.
“I was there when Mike Bracken walked in through the door,” says Apostolou. “At the time, we did not have the infrastructure to support this great man. I spent a lot of time with Mike.”
The new GOV.UK platform launched in beta form in January 2012, before becoming fully operational later that year. Apostolou is quick to pick this out as one of the key achievements of his tenure at GDS.
“That was a really good time, and we had lots of examples of positive impact,” he says. “That, for me, was really important. It showed that the way we were working was sustainable.”
Since those early days, GDS has grown into an important strand of the UK central government set-up, with 850 employees on the books.
GDS now sets the standard for what good government looks like
In more recent years, the former GDS man says that the organisation’s work on initiatives including the Verify identity-assurance service, and the Government as a Platform project, were among the highlights.
“The long-term aim is to build a digital workforce,” he says. “I would like to see us at the very heart of digital transformation.”
Three months ago Apostolou called time on his years in the civil service and took a post as head of commercial operations at dxw. The Hoxton-based company, which employs 30 people, specialises in providing web and digital services to government and the wider public sector.
“The main reason I joined was that I wanted to work in a wider range of public sector [situations]; in my whole career in government I have worked in the very centre of government, whether in Directgov, or GDS,” Apostolou says. “I felt I had something to offer, and I wanted a fresh challenge.”
Founded nine years ago, dxw offers a range of services to help the public sector with digital platforms. These include website design and construction, hosting, and security, as well as early-stage consultancy services.
It currently has about 25 clients, including bodies in central government, healthcare, and housing. Its completed projects include work on the BLOG.GOV.UK and NHS Jobs sites.
“Our clients are all at different stages, and we are finding that our engagement varies,” Apostolou says. “Some are mature, but some we are working with are at the inception stage. When we work with a client like that from an early stage, we can help embed a digital way of working.”
He adds: “That is a fantastic opportunity for us, and a real chance to properly shape policy.”
Apostolou (pictured left) says that taking the experience he gained during GDS’s evolution and applying it from a commercial perspective could benefit the public sector.
“At GDS we had all the best intentions to build that [digital] practice, and all the best people,” he says. “But we often got unstuck by not taking the time to understand value for money, and I would like to think I that I can bring to bear that experience, and some of the scars I personally obtained.”
Ultimately, Apostolou reflects with pride on the progress made during GDS’s existence.
“Looking back at my time, things like Government as a Platform and Verify are world-leading projects,” he says.
“GDS now sets the standard for what good government looks like."
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