GDS's greatest hits: Skills, savings and survival

Written by Rebecca Hill on 7 December 2016 in Features

After years of planning, building, cajoling, tough love and bunting, the Government Digital Service is celebrating its fifth birthday. We asked critics and proponents what the service should feel most proud of – and what it needs to fix next.

International team at GDS

Daniel Thornton, programme director, Institute for Government

Proudest achievement

GDS has brought a new approach to digitising government that challenges established ways of working and puts citizens and users first.

What’s left to do

We need an ambitious but honest strategy to digitise government, which the prime minister and the chancellor should publically support. It needs a measurable baseline and target for digitising services, and to provide support and incentives for departments to update their legacy systems. GDS needs to focus hard on getting the public sector to work together in new ways so that services reflect citizens’ needs rather than organisational boundaries.


David Walker, former managing director public reporting at the Audit Commission

Proudest achievement

"Bluntly, GDS’ greatest achievement is survival"

Bluntly, GDS’ greatest achievement is survival. The Cameron era was one of the most dishevelled Whitehall has been through. Quangos were culled, half-baked reorganisation was pushed through; Number Ten was dozy and individual ministers left to get on with it. That allowed Francis Maude – one of the most widely disliked of Cameron’s colleagues – to push a personal agenda, to the benefit of government IT.

What’s left to do

Looking ahead, it’s whether amid the din and distraction of Brexit there’s any energy and appetite in Number Ten and the Cabinet Office to push the GDS agenda and give Kevin Cunnington and co the political oomph they need to push and pull departments and agencies forward. I’m dubious.


Matthew Trimming, founder of consultancy META

Proudest achievement

Having changed the terms of debate around technology in government. It has put digitally enabled transformation at the centre of service reform. It has proven through its exemplar projects and platforms that government can, with the support of a large number of SME suppliers, design, build and operate popular, user-centred transactional services in concert with colleagues in other government departments and agencies.

What’s left to do

Build on its work with departments and focus on transforming whole citizen-facing services; services that will often cut across traditional organisational boundaries.

It must lead on the data aspects of service and departmental transformation by appointing a new chief data officer, and own the digital profession within government, building on the good work of the digital acadetranmies to create a genuine career path for digital technologist within the civil service.


Eddie Copeland, director of government innovation at innovation charity Nesta

Proudest achievement

Injecting a critical mass of digital talent right into the heart of the civil service. Given the vital role that digital plays – and will play – in reforming government services, it’s hard to overstate the importance of having that deep in-house expertise.

What’s left to do

"It’s hard to overstate the importance of having deep in-house expertise"

First, GDS needs to use its knowledge of digital to make government a smart, demanding and effective customer of the IT industry. While a small number of tools may still need to be developed in-house, GDS should ensure that government can benefit from the very best technical innovations created by companies large and small.

Second, place even more attention on data. The UK is known for its open data successes, but government must be the primary consumer of the vast amount of data that sits within its departments. Using that data intelligently is key to evidence-based policymaking, smarter coordination between departments and delivering genuinely better services for citizens.


Theo Blackwell, member of cabinet for finance and technology at Camden Council

Proudest achievement

The Bracken period showed the direction and what can be done with the right leadership and political commitment. His government-as-a-platform thinking there certainly spurred Camden's journey.

What’s left to do

GDS's contribution has been focused largely on Whitehall, and it is now time to work with local public services. There is too much stress on central government, when we should be concerned with better delivery around user needs whatever the tier of government. Local government is effectively where most service delivery is at and so has massive scope for tech talent from GDS or elsewhere to apply themselves and help us solve social problems. I hope central government gives GDS the political headspace to work with leading local and combined authorities to continue our transformation through networks like the Local Digital Coalition. 

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