Five years ago, many people who had spent years criticizing the UK government's use of information technology woke up to a profound change. As the entrepreneur and activist William Heath wrote and I followed up a few months later, suddenly technically valuable people saw UK government as an unbeatable opportunity to make a positive impact on tens of millions of lives. The Government Digital Service was created with a mandate from the Cabinet Office by people like Mike Bracken, Tom Loosemore, and a bunch of others to reinvent government IT. Partly, this was sheer necessity: there was, as the outgoing chancellor had informed the incoming chancellor, no money. Giant, failed IT projects that wasted billions of pounds were now unaffordable luxuries.
There was always one big proviso: how to root the ideas behind GDS so firmly it couldn't be discarded later. Bryan Glick, who seems to be GDS's chief chronicler, summed this up in an August blog posting discussing how to break up GDS without breaking it up: entangle its influence until its own existence was no longer necessary. Yes, GDS has had its failures, as The Register has been happy to document, but it's had successes, too. It is now far easier for a normal person to find government information; Gov.uk is doing its job. Still, there is a long, long way to go to Heath's original dream of government as our service, digitally delivered. A much more profound shift away from centralized hierarchy is needed.
The battle between centralization and decentralization underpins many current disputes: legacy telephone companies and the internet (at least, as originally conceived); personal data stores that groups like Mydex are building versus the data mountains whose breaches appear in daily news headlines. Ultimately, centralization leads to the collect-all-data-in-case-it's-useful mentality of the Investigatory Powers bill, and it's deeply embedded in British government, as Yes, Minister writer Antony Jay said last year. It's not clear how much of a dent GDS has been able to make in that entrenched mode of thinking.
As soon as Bracken and Loosemore announced their departures, the immediate question was: will GDS survive? The civil servants I know all seemed optimistic at the time. Oh, yes, they said: there are so many good people left. They're prepared.
But are they now? Glick and departing GDSers themselves have been documenting a stream of departures ever since, some willing, some not. A few - such as former GDS program manager Andrew Greenway, Anne Kempster, and GDS co-founder Etienne Pollard - have made their frustration public. "Whitehall always wins," Greenway observed gloomily in August, calling GDS's prognosis "defenestration".
Even less optimism surrounds the source of the incoming director, Kevin Cunnington, whose previous job was leading business transformation for the Department of Work and Pensions. Which - whether it's the reality or not - sounds much more like a traditional civil servant than the cheeky folks who founded GDS and who populate the monthly first-Thursday teacamps.
A year ago, most of the civil servants and civil-service-adjacents of my acquaintance were optimistic about the survival of GDS's culture: yes, some people had left, but many good ones were left. And then there was practicality: why would anyone want to interfere with an organization that was saving the government millions, if not billions, of pounds a year?
Jay and co-writer Jonathan Lynn had an answer: "There has to be some way to measure success in the civil service," senior civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne) explains (Season 1, episode 3, "The Economy Drive") to his naive junior, Bernard Woolley (Derek Fowldes). "British Leyland measure their success by the size of its profits - or, to be more accurate, they measure their failure by the size of their losses. We don't have profits and losses. We have to measure our success by the size of our staff and our budget. By definition, Bernard, a big department is more successful than a small one." The subject of their discussion: a northern region that has saved £32 million. "Suppose everyone went around saving money irresponsibly all over the place?"
In the teacamp piece linked above, Heath outlined three steps: 1) transform government publishing; 2) transform government transactions; 3) transform policy. At the time, late 2013, he estimated that we were in the middle of step two. That is where we are still: Verify, intended to create a market for identity and authentication services, seems to have stalled; and although some transactions are in fact now remarkably easy much remains unchanged. Step three remains a dream. The fallout from the EU referendum seems to me to provide an excellent excuse for departments to stall, perhaps permanently.
"In government, if you're not pushing forward you are going backwards at a pace of knots," a knowledgeable acquaintance said recently.
Nonetheless, others close to the situation are convinced that while this iteration of GDS is likely, even probably, finished, its people will fan out across government departments in a diaspora that will ultimately spread change throughout Whitehall. A pessimist would say, "Divided and conquered."
Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.