The Government Digital Service (GDS) is heralded as a success by the three major political parties, and as a core part of the Tories' technology agenda and the government's digital transformation.
But it lost two key figures this year: digital advocate and Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, and more recently, and unexpectedly, GDS executive director and chief data officer Mike Bracken (pictured).
The Summer Budget lacked much in the way of direct initiatives involving technology, and Maude and Bracken's departures have created scepticism in the technology world and among supporters of digital transformation in the public sector about the future of GDS.
Concerns were raised about the future of the government's digital agenda when Maude departed. But Bracken, roundly praised by GDS colleagues, senior civil servants and the tech sector, remained at GDS to alleviate any fears. This safety net has now gone.
Adam Thilthorpe, director of external affairs at BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, said Bracken's departure leaves a big leadership hole.
"Whoever succeeds Mike not only has to fill big shoes, but needs to continue the genuine transformation of services. This is not just about great user interface design but real end-to-end digital [services]," he said.
"Some things have not been smooth, not all the exemplars have been a resounding success, however Mike took the challenge, dared to be measured and held accountable and the results have certainly been positive and to the betterment of the public purse."
Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates, praised Bracken's work but is concerned that GDS is losing a very strong leader.
"Bracken's work in GDS produced some of the most visible manifestations of digital innovation in a government that has been hugely supportive of the technology sector," he said.
"The government needs figures committed to digital innovation at the highest level."
Naureen Khan, associate director of central government at techUK, echoed the views of Shaw and Thilthorpe.
"Bracken's leadership has raised the profile of digital and made it more relevant throughout government, both of which are crucial if the government is to successfully use new technologies to deliver more for less," she said.
"He leaves a strong team, which will be critical to maintaining progress following his departure."
Even opposition MPs said that Bracken would be a big loss to government.
GDS began operations in April 2011 with a mission to shift the government and public sector away from analogue to digital technologies and services, and Bracken and Maude were instrumental in driving successful projects.
GDS has overseen the G-Cloud for several years and, despite a rocky start, now sees millions of pounds worth of transactions every month through the cloud procurement framework. Furthermore, G-Cloud also helps SME compete against large enterprises for lucrative government contracts.
The standard-bearer of GDS has been the Gov.uk website, which consolidated 300 public sector sites into a single, easy to navigate platform claimed to save taxpayers £60m a year.
Shaw noted that the work on Gov.uk has been significant for GDS and shows the effects of digital on the public sector.
"The impact of Gov.uk cannot be understated. Combining high-quality design with improved user experience demonstrated the improvement that an effective digital strategy can have on public perception and cost efficiency," he said.
Maude and Bracken also championed government-as-a-platform, which aims to enable digital public services to be constructed out of common components rather than bespoke systems that waste resources. This is being slowly realised with the common payments platform prototype the government recently revealed.
GDS is also driving other well-received projects, such as Verify, a system to make it possible for people to prove who they are when using public services online.
However, GDS has seen a few failures as well under the leadership of Bracken and Maude. G-Cloud has failed to expand beyond selling to central government, raising questions as to how GDS' digital-by-default idea can be pushed beyond Whitehall.
G-Cloud has also been criticised for not doing enough to support small and medium technology businesses, and large IT enterprises still make up half of the sales by value through the framework.
The failure of a £154m farming payments IT system, which forced the Rural Agency to move back to paper forms when processing subsidy claims, indicated that GDS is struggling to transform complex back-end IT systems with modern customer-facing interfaces.
GDS was also required to step back from working on the development of enhanced IT for the Department for Work and Pension's Universal Credit scheme, as the departments could not agree on the way to approach IT, which had already seen the DWP waste £34m on ineffective systems.
Arguably, laying this blame at the door of Bracken and Maude could be a little unfair, given they had the huge task of leading GDS and getting long-standing departments and civil servants to adopt technologies they were not familiar with.
Given that the government has a history of IT failures, Bracken and Maude's hiccups with GDS are minor compared with the rest of the public sector and what they managed to achieve with the department.
And the future
Bracken is due to leave the government in September, and GDS could be a ship without a captain in a challenging sea of Tory government budget and staff cuts.
GDS is effectively a department that helps and encourages other parts of Whitehall to go digital, and strong leadership is needed to push the onus to transform onto the shoulders of other ministers and senior civil servants.
Before he left the Cabinet Office, Maude (pictured) was adamant that GDS' digital-by-default mission would involve agile approaches to IT and service development and a move away from expensive, long-term contracts with a few major suppliers.
Without Bracken or another vocal leader to push this agenda on other departments, there is a risk that GDS will lose its influence and Whitehall will fall back on familiar legacy contracts, rather than trying to wrangle multiple SME-level suppliers.
The likes of Fujitsu and HP, both current suppliers to the government, may see this as a boon, but a loss of influence for GDS could torpedo the future for the UK's technology SMEs.
Thilthorpe believes that GDS' future relies on building on previous successes, but on a larger scale.
"Digital transformation will ultimately be delivered by the departments themselves, relying on their own talent and capability," he said.
"GDS has provided a glimpse of what good might look like, and what government-as-a-platform might really mean, but business as usual is likely to reside in the teams on the front line of the services being delivered.
"Agile as a state of mind needs to continue to be nurtured in tandem with those that seek to set policy as well as those who could deliver it."
There is scope to find a new leader from among Bracken's GDS cohorts, for example G-Cloud director Tony Singleton, or Richard Sargeant, director of performance and delivery at GDS.
Bracken is confident that the department will find its next digital champion. "One particular pleasure has been seeing new leaders emerging, and I can confidently say within GDS and departments we have many inspiring digital leaders from a range of disciplines, and many of them are women," he said.
He also praised Maude's replacement, Matt Hancock, as a minister capable of maintaining the government's digital transformation.
GDS could also turn to the private sector to seek out new talent. But that is a double-edged sword, as the government has already lost digital advocates to technology firms, such as Sage CEO Stephen Kelly, who was one of the government's top civil servants.
Bracken is still at GDS for the next month and a half. The next steps for GDS are still unclear, although the eyes of the technology industry and public sector observers will be glued on the department when 30 September comes around.
After that it could be business as usual for GDS or a complete shake up. Only time will tell.
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