Francis Maude mulls mulligan on muddled merger of UK govt tech services

Former Whitehall axe wielder wants Cabinet Office to undo his great work

In a week when former prime minister David Cameron unexpectedly returned to UK government, another figure from those sunny coalition years has returned to British politics.

As paymaster general and minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude was the architect of the Government Digital Service (GDS). The newly created team was designed to "drive service delivery to digital across government and provide support, advice and technical expertise for Departments as they develop new digital delivery models," he said in 2012.

However, in early 2021, the unit was split, with a splinter team forming the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO). Government reasoning was that they should both operate within the Cabinet Office, but CDDO should be setting strategy and standards while GDS developed services.

In his Independent Review of Government and Accountability in the Civil Service, the 70-year-old life peer said GDS and CDDO should become one unit once more.

"Where previously each function had a clear and unambiguous leader at the centre who was responsible for driving effectiveness with one voice across Whitehall, the centre is now frequently providing multiple (and mixed) signals," he said.

"In digital, for example, the split between the Government Digital Service (GDS) and Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) creates a largely artificial split between functional leadership and delivery. The lack of a unified organisational structure degrades the strength of leadership that can be provided by the centre, and absorbs significant amounts of officials' time in brokering internal coordination rather than delivery."

If delivery was at the forefront of the government's mind, early leadership was an interesting choice. Early in 2021, it picked Joanna Davinson to head up CDDO, which leads 18,000 digital, data, and technology professionals in government.

She had prepared well. In her previous role at the Home Office, she spent the last three years overseeing the Emergency Services Network project, which at the time was incurring £550 million in additional annual costs because of delays. The replacement blue light mobile communications and data service was first expected to go live in 2017, and is now not set to arrive until 2029.

Nonetheless, CDDO can point to other significant KPIs. In September, a report from MPs found tech skills shortages and reliance on legacy systems were holding back the government's efforts to improve efficiency, 11 years after Maude first created to GDS to tackle that very problem.

Parliament's spending watchdog warned that skills shortages, including those self-inflicted through headcount cuts among tech teams, "risk costing … much more in the long run because opportunities to transform are foregone, and delays increase the risks of prolonging legacy systems."

Dame Meg Hillier MP, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: "Whitehall's digital services, far from transforming at the pace required, are capable of only piecemeal and incremental change."

Not that Maude has had a career without controversy. In 2015, shortly after he departed his role as Cabinet Office minister, The Register revealed that the six largest Whitehall departments splashed out £1.4 billion on tech projects in addition to the cost of running IT, which was £2.3 billion for the same six departments. This was despite half of the top 20 software and IT services suppliers seeing their government revenue decline.

Perhaps with current PM Rishi Sunak promising change, the government will see fit to merge the CDDO and the GDS. But only an optimist would expect dramatically different results. ®

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