Britain’s top digital department just got an influx of talent at the top

By Oliver Smith 12 February 2016
Yesterday GDS held its annual Sprint conference where it announced new services to help Government contact its citizens.

Baroness Martha Lane-Fox, ASOS chair Brian McBride and investor Saul Klein are among the entrepreneurs who will help turnaround the Government Digital Service.

A new board of entrepreneurs and tech leaders have been brought together to reinvigorate the Government’s attempts to bring more technology into the public sector.

Baroness Martha Lane-Fox, Saul Klein, the creator of LoveFilm, and Brian McBride, the chair of online fashion empire ASOS, are among those joining a new advisory board to help shape the direction of the Government Digital Service (GDS), the most important tech public body you’ve never heard of.

GDS is best known for its work on Gov.uk, a project which consolidated over 300 public sector websites into a single easy-to-navigate portal, resulting in some £60m of taxpayer savings every year.

“I’m always a little skeptical of advisory boards, task forces etc – they’re often just a quick and free way for a minister to announce something, and then little happens afterwards,” executive director of digital business policy group Coadec and our Associate Policy Editor, Guy Levin, told The Memo.

“Though this does seem to be a good group of impressive people, so it can only be a good thing that they have more (and hopefully lots of) access to policymakers.”

Last year GDS was thrown into turmoil as its former leader Mike Bracken left, along with a raft of senior staff, and the department came under fire as the Government weighed cuts to the department.

Read more: Can Britain’s top digital department keep calm and carry on?

Isn’t the Government already quite high-tech?

Two weeks ago millions of Brits came face-to-face with just how much of a digital dinosaur  our Government can be, as they filled in their self-assessment tax returns.

“Oh god, it’s like the worst kind of admin and going to the dentist at the same time,” one self-employed entrepreneur told me, after spending a morning on the phone with HMRC’s automated help line.

“There’s literally nothing good about it.”

And tax returns are just one area where we’ve fallen behind.

Things get even worse when it comes to keeping in touch with citizens. If HMRC, the Department for Work and Pensions or another department wants to contact citizens, either via post, email or text, they have to set that service up on a piecemeal basis.

Don’t fear, GDS is on the case.

Yesterday the group announced a number of new initiatives including Pay and Notify, which will let any department tap into a central system to email, text or write to citizens and make and accept payments, without having to build their own system from scratch.

“More broadly I was left reassured by the stuff coming out yesterday,” Levin added.

“Last year when Bracken et al left, and the rumours were of big cuts, it looked like GDS may be doomed, but the opposite is now true.”

And with the best entrepreneurial minds in technology helping to steer the ship and assert influence in Government, the best days for GDS may still be ahead.