The major milestones of the Government Digital Service (GDS)

We look at the key moments in the history of GDS

The Government Digital Service (GDS) has had a turbulent history since it was founded in 2011 as a new Cabinet Office unit in charge of driving digital transformation within government.

It has won awards for the GOV.UK website and helped the UK reach the top spot on the United Nations e-government survey in 2016, but other key GDS initiatives have flagged, high-profile leaders have left and the unit's responsibilities have been curbed. 

These developments have raised concerns over the future of GDS. In July, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee called for the government to clarify the role of GDS and its relationship with other departments. 

That clarification is yet to arrive. A new director general and minister have been appointed to the unit by Boris Johnson's government, but the administration's strategy for GDS remains unclear.

Computerworld takes a look at some of the key moments in the short but tumultuous history of GDS to date.

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Boris Johnson asks GDS to track entire user journey on GOV.UK

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his chief advisor Dominic Cummings want GDS to add an additional layer of tracking to the GOV.UK website, which will turn the government services portal into a “platform to allow targeted and personalised information to be gathered, analysed and fed back actively to support key decision making” in the run-up to Brexit, according to documents seen by Buzzfeed.

This “will enable GDS to have data for the entire journey of a user as they land on GOV.UK from a Google advert or an email link, read content on GOV.UK, click on a link taking them from GOV.UK to a service and then onwards through the service journey to completion”, the documents explain.

The plan would force individual government departments to centralise the collection and analysis of data from users of GOV.UK. The government claims that the purpose of the project is ensure that citizens can access all the services they need as easily as possible and that all the activity is "compliant with our legal and ethical obligations,” but critics have questioned the sudden urgent need for big data collection and the reasons for it being pursued through the Cabinet’s EU exit operations (“XO”) committee.

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August 2019: Simon Hart confirmed as GDS minister

Simon Hart took ministerial responsibility for GDS after he was confirmed as minister for implementation in Boris Johnson's government in August 2019.

Hart was appointed to the position shortly after Johnson became Prime Minister, but it was almost a month before receiving official sign off on his duties, which also include oversight of the Geospatial Commission, cyber security, public appointments and Civil Service HR.

The Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire MP succeeds Oliver Dowden, who has been promoted to the position of minister for the Cabinet Office.

Hart has been an MP since 2010, and served as chief executive of the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance before entering Parliament. He campaigned for remain during the 2016 referendum, but pledged his support for Boris Johnson during the 2019 Tory leadership campaign.

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August 2019: Alison Pritchard appointed GDS director general

Alison Pritchard has been appointed director general at GDS. Pritchard takes over leadership of the department from Kevin Cunnington, who left the role unit in June to head the International Government Service, a new body created to promote UK government services overseas.

Pritchard had spent two years as COO of GDS before she moved into the position of GDS director general on an interim basis in after the departure of Cunningham. She now takes on the position on a permanent basis.

June 2019: Commons committee requests clarification of GDS role

June 2019: Commons committee requests clarification of GDS role

In July 2019, a parliamentary committee called for the government to clarify GDS' role, its relationships with other departments, as well as determining whether it needed additional powers.

The Science and Technology Select Committee's Digital Government report found that the departures of Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude and several senior Civil Service figures in GDS had led to "a slowing in the government's digital momentum, as evidenced by other countries overtaking the UK in international rankings".

It added that GDS had "lost its way somewhat" and that its purpose was no longer fully clear.

It recommended that GDS serve two separate purposes: providing advice to departments when needed and devising and enforcing minimum standards to be applied consistently across government digital services.

June 2019: GDS chief Kevin Cunnington moves on to new global promotion role

June 2019: GDS chief Kevin Cunnington moves on to new global promotion role

A week after the launch of the Technology Innovation Strategy, GDS director general Kevin Cunnington announced that he will be leaving the unit to head the International Government Service, a new body created to promote UK government services overseas.

Cunnington spent three turbulent years at the helm of GDS marked by a parliamentary inquiry into its effectiveness, the loss of responsibility for data policy to DCMS, and a string of missed targets for the adoption of digital identity programme GOV.UK Verify.

In a statement announcing his departure, the Cabinet Office claimed that under his leadership, "GDS has helped the government realise more than £1bn of benefits through scrutinising technology spending".

It added that his key achievements included the introduction of machine learning and speech recognition technologies to government services, and overseeing a substantial increase in traffic to the GOV.UK website.

Cunnington will be replaced on an interim basis by Alison Pritchard, GDS' director for EU exit and transformation, until the agency recruits a permanent successor.

June 2019: Launch of Technology Innovation Strategy

June 2019: Launch of Technology Innovation Strategy

On 10 June, the government launched its Technology Innovation Strategy, a policy paper developed by GDS to set a national approach to public sector innovation.

The strategy is divided into the themes of people, processes, and data and technology. Key pledges include plans to tackle legacy technology, update standards and guidance for technology, and exploring seconding senior civil service leaders to industry to gain insights into experimentation that they can bring back to government.

"I am confident that this strategy and these measures, which support the aims and ambitions of the Industrial Strategy, will ensure that when it comes to technology innovation in government, we will head with focus into a bright, modern future," said minister for implementation Oliver Dowden, who has ministerial responsibility for GDS. "One which ensures that the work we do will benefit citizens, our economy and the whole public sector."

May 2019: MPs slam Verify as \'not fit for purpose\' in damning report

May 2019: MPs slam Verify as 'not fit for purpose' in damning report

GDS was slated for missing all of its original performance targets for GOV.UK Verify, the government's flagship digital identify programme, in an excoriating report by House of Commons Public Accounts Committee.

The troubled programme was launched by GDS in 2016 with the ambition of attracting 25 million citizens to the service by 2020, but until now only 4.15 million people have signed up as users.

MPs on the committee described Verify as "an onerous system that is not fit for purpose" whose potential benefits were vastly overestimated by GDS. It concluded that GDS' inability to get buy-in from departments ultimately led to Verify's failure.

Meg Hillier, the Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch who chairs the Public Accounts Committee, claimed that government departments did not want to use the system and that members of the public were facing problems signing up.

"Once again, the government has not delivered on a project that was over-ambitious from the start," she said. "This is a verdict the Public Accounts Committee are making all too often on large government projects."

April 2018: prime minister sneaks through GDS data defanging
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April 2018: prime minister sneaks through GDS data defanging

On 29 March, prime minister Theresa May published a written statement confirming a significant transfer of data governance and policy responsibilities from GDS into the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), which is headed up by Matt Hancock.

The changes were made effective from 1 April.

The statement said: "The transfer includes responsibility for data sharing (including coordination of Part 5 of the Digital Economy Act 2017), data ethics, open data and data governance.

"The expanded Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport brings together in one place data policy for both government and the wider economy. This will support work, led by DCMS, to ensure the UK is fully realising the benefits of the data economy for all."

The prime minister added that GDS will "continue its work" in supporting digital transformation in government, building digital capability in the civil service, and "championing service design across government to meet user needs".

But it is already being seen as a significant defanging of a department that has been considered adrift for some time now, beginning with a series of high profile departures in 2016 – amid rumours that Whitehall had plans to dissolve the unit.

Derek du Preez at Diginomica points out that wresting data from GDS means that it will lose control over restructuring plans for Whitehall.

"Breaking that up – and moving data out, which underpins every new service created – pretty much puts a bullet in the lame duck," writes du Preez.

"Those in control at DCMS know exactly this. They know if they control data, they control the future of digital government reform."

January 2018: GDS reviews Government Transformation Strategy and sets focus for the future
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January 2018: GDS reviews Government Transformation Strategy and sets focus for the future

To mark the anniversary of the Government Transformation Strategy, GDS director general Kevin Cunnington wrote a blog post reviewing the progress.

Cunnington noted that more than 175 services across government now use one of the components that GDS operates. They include the DVLA's adoption of the GOV.UK Notify service to remind people when they need an MOT, and a series of new services on the Department for International Trade's great.gov.uk website.

He also celebrated the launch of GovWifi as a single Wi-Fi login for all of government, improvements to the Digital Marketplace, and data schemes that led the UK to the top of Open Data Barometer's global list of publishers of open data.

Other milestones include passing 22.3 million notifications sent through GOV.UK Notify, and more than £39.3 million in payments sent through GOV.UK Pay.

GDS has also rewritten the Technology Code of Practice, is updating the Digital Service Standard and setting up service communities, which will bring together everyone across government working on the same user-focused service.

Priorities for 2018 include using biometrics, artificial intelligence and voice control on services and developing shared platforms to support Brexit preparations.

Cunnington also intends to expand the GDS Academy to more courses and locations, and build new data science and analytical capability through initiatives such as the Data Science Accelerator training programme.

July 2017: Digital Academy relaunches under GDS
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July 2017: Digital Academy relaunches under GDS

The GDS Academy was launched in July 2017 with a remit to support the development of digital skills and awareness across the civil service.

The project started in 2014 at the Department for Work and Pensions, where it was known as the Digital Academy. Government plans to expand the development of digital skills led it to transfer to GDS, with an aim to train more than 3,000 people every year.

It offers nine different courses focused on digital and agile delivery, a subset of practitioner courses, a 10-day foundation, and a course in agile for more senior leaders.

Training is provided at centres in Leeds, Stockport, London and Newcastle and in pop-up academies across the country.

August 2016: GOV.UK Verify director Janet Hughes announces departure from GDS
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August 2016: GOV.UK Verify director Janet Hughes announces departure from GDS

GOV.UK Verify director Janet Hughes announced she would be leaving the department as of 19 August, sparking more questions about the future of GDS.

Hughes spearheaded the GOV.UK Verify programme and provided an update about the service in a blog post.

She wrote: "We're now working harder than ever to continue to improve and expand the service and roll it out across central government services.

"We are also stepping up our work with local authorities, looking at how we can make GOV.UK Verify available for use in local authority services, to make it easier for people to do the things they need to do online and easier for local authorities to transform their services without having to reinvent the identity assurance wheel each time."

See also: GDS Verify director expects online IDs for everyone in a 'small number of years'

Hughes will be replaced by Jess McEvoy, who will become Programme Director on an acting basis. McEvoy has been at GDS for three years, Hughes wrote, most recently as head of policy and engagement.

August 2016: Stephen Foreshew-Cain leaves GDS, DWP’s Kevin Cunnington takes over
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August 2016: Stephen Foreshew-Cain leaves GDS, DWP’s Kevin Cunnington takes over

After being appointed just the previous year, GDS chief Foreshew-Cain left the organisation – amid persisting rumours that Whitehall was seeking to further break up GDS' responsibility.

The DWP's director general for business transformation, Kevin Cunnington, was appointed instead, and quickly moved to assuage fears that GDS was in peril with a blogpost on GOV.UK titled 'Kevin says hello'.

"GDS will not be broken up," he wrote. "We remain part of the Cabinet Office with a clear mandate to lead digital, technology and data across government. I say this with the support and backing of John Manzoni, chief executive of the civil service and permanent secretary for Cabinet Office."

July 2016: rumours emerge Whitehall wants to dissolve GDS
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July 2016: rumours emerge Whitehall wants to dissolve GDS

Reports emerged in July that senior civil servants tried to use Theresa May's reshuffling of responsibility for digital policy to break up GDS.

The sources claimed that GDS' very existence was under threat and that the handling of government IT would swing in full back to the days of bloated IT contracts, and full responsibility on Whitehall.

May 2016: GOV.UK Verify launches
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May 2016: GOV.UK Verify launches

The long-touted single point for online verification in government services, GOV.UK Verify, finally launched after years on the drawing table.

First announced in 2011, the service seeks to provide one trusted login for citizens using digital services in government, and relies on various third-party suppliers to avoid using a centralised government database.

January 2016: GOV.UK Notify moves to public beta
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January 2016: GOV.UK Notify moves to public beta

The clue is in the name: the idea behind GOV.UK Notify is designed to keep users of digital services informed on the status of their query – with a view to providing that information in a way that will also provide cost savings to running call centres.

The principle is that it allows service teams throughout government to contact service users via email, text or through the post, through web applications, back office systems, or GOV.UK’s own Notify interface.

August 2015: GDS chief Mike Bracken announces his departure amid wider shake-up
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August 2015: GDS chief Mike Bracken announces his departure amid wider shake-up

Cofounder and GDS lead Mike Bracken had been in charge of the organisation since 2011 – but in August 2015 announced he was leaving to become chief digital officer at the Cooperative group.

We reported at the time that his departure, as we understood it, was tied to plans in the civil service to swing the axe at GDS' budget and headcount as part of wider spending cuts.

Four other high-profile GDS figures also left: deputy director Tom Loosemore, design director Ben Terrett, user research chief Leisa Reichelt, and strategy director Russell Davies.

Bracken was replaced by GDS COO Stephen Foreshew-Cain, who first joined the organisation in April 2014.

June 2015: GDS commits to rethink of Digital Services Framework
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June 2015: GDS commits to rethink of Digital Services Framework

Complaints from suppliers lead GDS to commit to a redesign of the framework, having achieved just £16.4 million in spending of the £40 million target set out at its official launch in 2013.

Tony Singleton said at the time: "It has become clear from user research that Digital Services needs to be completely redesigned to the extent that it will essentially be a new framework."

August 2014: GDS\' Digital Marketplace replaces G-Cloud CloudStore
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August 2014: GDS' Digital Marketplace replaces G-Cloud CloudStore

Following a rework of the CloudStore, GDS claimed that the service had evolved to the degree that the brief had changed, and vowed to completely replace Cloudstore with Digital Marketplace, a simplified version with increased functionality for suppliers and buyers – but also in line with GDS' design principles.

April 2014: GDS launches Digital by Default Service Standard
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April 2014: GDS launches Digital by Default Service Standard

In response to the Government Digital Strategy policy paper, GDS put together the ‘Digital by Default Service Standard’ – a collection of 26 criteria that all government digital projects must adhere to, with a view to being user-led and easy to use.

June 2014: GDS launches Register to Vote
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June 2014: GDS launches Register to Vote

First demonstrated in January 2014, GDS launched the Register to Vote platform in June – an online registration system compatible with smartphones and tablets.

November 2013: GDS launches Digital Services Framework
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November 2013: GDS launches Digital Services Framework

Almost 200 suppliers agreed to sign up to the GDS’ Digital Services Framework, a managed service available for central departments for digital procurement.

September 2013: GDS enlisted for disastrous Universal Credit IT project
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September 2013: GDS enlisted for disastrous Universal Credit IT project

Almost 200 suppliers agreed to sign up to the GDS’ Digital Services Framework, a managed service available for central departments for digital procurement.

June 2013: GDS takes control of G-Cloud
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June 2013: GDS takes control of G-Cloud

G-Cloud, which aimed to break up the control of government IT contracts from the grip of the big suppliers, moved over to GDS, and chief operating officer Tony Singleton took charge of the team.

February 2017: Launch of Government Transformation Strategy
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February 2017: Launch of Government Transformation Strategy

The long-awaited Government Transformation Strategy was finally published in February 2017.

The document outlines how the government hopes to harness digital to transform the relationship between the citizen and state.

It sets out plans to develop digital skills and culture, build better tools for civil servants, improve the use of data and promote shared platforms and compatible technologies.

Then-cabinet office minister Ben Gummer called the proposals "the most ambitious programme of change of any government anywhere in the world". Responses to the plans mixed cautious optimism with relief that it had finally be released.

It had first been scheduled for publication in December 2015 but was repeatedly pushed back, purportedly due to the appointment of a new head of GDS and the distraction of the Brexit referendum.

April 2013: GDS wins Design of the Year 2013 award for GOV.UK
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April 2013: GDS wins Design of the Year 2013 award for GOV.UK

In 2013 GDS won the British Design Museum's Design of the Year award for GOV.UK – uncharacteristic of technology in government, the jury praised the website's understated appearance and commitment to simple but effective graphic design.

September 2012: GOV.UK to replace Directgov completely
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September 2012: GOV.UK to replace Directgov completely

GDS announced that its GOV.UK project would replace all Directgov websites to create a single domain for accessing both services and information.

January 2012: GDS places GOV.UK into public beta
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January 2012: GDS places GOV.UK into public beta

Following a successful trial in the alpha stage, GDS moved to create a single-domain website for all government information and services, with the citizen-facing side of this placed into public beta.

At the time, GDS said the beta stage would be fuelled by the principles of user needs and would be in line Martha Lane Fox's review. But Directgov would continue to be the go-to web portal for now.

December 2011: Francis Maude says GDS is ‘open for business’
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December 2011: Francis Maude says GDS is ‘open for business’

Right towards the end of 2011, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said that GDS was "open for business" – and highlighted some of the department's achievements so far. These included the launch of a new e-petitions service (which crashed on day one), putting the majority of citizen-facing government content under the banner of Directgov, an app for the 'Tech City' project in London, and access to £10 million in funding to start the new GDS identity assurance programme.

July 2011: Mike Bracken appointed director of digital at the Cabinet Office and head of GDS
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July 2011: Mike Bracken appointed director of digital at the Cabinet Office and head of GDS

Previously director of digital development at Guardian Media, Mike Bracken was appointed director of digital at the Cabinet Office and head of GDS. He alerted the world in a blog post. It signalled a kind of 'soft launch' for GDS and the role he would play within it, setting out some of his aims and thoughts on the newly formed organisation.

April 2011: Directgov team rolled into GDS
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April 2011: Directgov team rolled into GDS

The citizen-facing website for providing information about government services, Directgov, was folded into GDS.

November 2010: Directgov 2010 and beyond: Revolution not evolution
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November 2010: Directgov 2010 and beyond: Revolution not evolution

LastMinute.com founder Martha Lane Fox addressed the then-minister for the Cabinet Office and longstanding Conservative politician Francis Maude with a set of recommendations that would hash out the way forward for the role technology would play in government.

Many of these recommendations would form the basis for the creation of GDS and the adoption of the 'digital by default' concept across government.

May 2010: Francis Maude appointed Cabinet Office minister
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May 2010: Francis Maude appointed Cabinet Office minister

With the formation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in May 2010, Francis Maude returned to government after a lengthy stay in the shadow cabinet. He would soon become responsible for creating and overseeing the Government Digital Service.

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