GDS boss Alison Pritchard: ‘There’s scope for us to be a bit more of an enforcer’

Written by Sam Trendall on 2 March 2020 in News

Director general says that, as organisation focuses more on data, she wants to ensure ‘we maintain the teeth we need to be effective’

Credit: GDS

The director general of the Government Digital Service has said that, as its attention turns towards the implementation of data architecture and standards, the organisation is willing to return to being "a bit more of an enforcer”.

Alison Pritchard (pictured above), who has appointed as interim boss in August, told PublicTechnology that, as government departments increasingly focus on their use of data – and the underlying infrastructure that supports its sharing and analysis – GDS will play an important role in ensuring interoperability and the application of standards.

“We're going to need, in due course, to be able to sign off on data architecture for various major programmes, and ensure that [our work on] the approaches people are taking on data goes beyond merely guidance, and more into recognising standards that will allow us to be interoperable, build for the future, and make sure that operating models are being sufficiently disrupted,” she said. “To do that will require us to exercise a bit of the old GDS elbow – but in a positive sense. And I would say we've learned from the journey we had on the digital transformation, to also exploit the same approach on data transformation. It's going to be a very interesting time.”

GDS celebrated its eighth birthday late last year and now employs about 850 people.

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The director general said that, with the organisation’s increased maturity – as well as that of individual departments’ digital capabilities – comes a need to operate across “a spectrum: from critical friend, through to enforcer”.

In its early years, GDS was known more as the latter than the former. 

But the digital and technology spending controls it oversees are now run in a more “collaborative” way, in which departments maintain a long-term pipeline of planned projects and investments – rather than submitting proposals for approval or rejection.

“We can work with departments earlier on in their process and fix things as we progress – and that's great,” Pritchard said. “But I'm also up for us pushing the boundaries and being that much firmer with departments’ plans – ensuring that we maintain the teeth that we need to be effective. Other functions do it, and I think being able to operate as enforcer and as supporter is not beyond our means.”

Even with a firmer hand on enforcement issues, the 15-month pipeline model GDS has now adopted in its assessment of digital standards and spending has taught the organisation that interventions are more effective when made earlier, Pritchard said.

"We can work with departments earlier on in their process and fix things as we progress. But I'm also up for us pushing the boundaries and being that much firmer with departments’ plans – ensuring that we maintain the teeth that we need to be effective. Operate as enforcer and as supporter is not beyond our means."
Alison Prichard, GDS

“If you wait until the end of the process and focus merely on spending controls, then all you really do is end up with a bit of a suboptimal last-minute set of decisions. So, our interventions and support need to be much earlier in the [implementation of] technical architecture, data architecture, and decisions around the policymaking,” she said. 

Pritchard added that, unlike in GDS’s earliest days, the organisation is now working in an environment where digital is commonplace, and is importance widely appreciated.

She said: “I’m already finding colleagues are talking to us at a much earlier stage – because there is now an understanding that digital delivery and digital transformation isn't merely the front end or the back end of services; it really is part and parcel of how you how you plan your user journey, user-centred design, and the means of delivering services that are fit for purpose.”



You can hear more from Alison Pritchard at the PublicTechnology Annual Conference in London on 24 March, where she will be delivering the closing keynote address. Click here to book your place, or find out more about the event, which is free to attend for the public sector, and features an array of high-level speakers covering a range of topics.


About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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