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Of the web, not on the web

Today we announced some small but important changes in governance. The detail is here but the upshot is: we won’t have a cross-government Chief Information Officer (CIO) any more, nor a Head of Profession for Information and Communications Technology (ICT). We are moving responsibility for these capabilities to the Government Digital Service and we are closing some cross-government boards in various technology areas and reviewing the rest in order to make sure we are set up as efficiently as possible.

Why's this important enough to merit a blog post? Every industry and business constantly needs to adapt its internal processes and governance to accommodate digital disruption. We are no different in government, so don’t expect this to be the last of these small changes.

However, as we are government and, rightly, come under public scrutiny, and also because there is an active technology industry which follows us closely, let me expand on why we are doing this and what it means. Notably, I want to pick out the major issue which underpins these changes: our dominant culture.

From ICT to Digital

As we move away from a large procurement approach to technology and become adept at commissioning and co-delivering digital public services our capability profile needs to change technically, and culturally. In the last few months, in GDS and in other departments, we are hiring and commissioning roles including:

  • data scientists
  • information architects
  • technical architects
  • product managers
  • service managers
  • software engineer
  • designers of all types
  • user researchers
  • delivery and test managers

And to ensure that all these roles can operate to their full potential, the people and organisations with which we work must be imbued by the culture and ethos of the web generation. This means they understand that what used to be hard is easier, and what used to be expensive is cheap and becoming cheaper. But above all they must understand that the challenge now is not about information technology, but about designing, developing and delivering great, user-centred digital services.

The modern CIO

The CIO moniker to me was a natural development from the elevation of the technology function to a board role. While Chief Technology Officers (CTOs) deliver the technology, CIOs are expected to use the flows of information and data from that technology and across business systems to inform strategy. And this is why we need to address the CIO issue in government as, by definition, it is tough to be a CIO in government with so much of that information and data residing in outsourced services and proprietary software.

Unfortunately, this means that many of our CIOs are performing as quasi-procurement and contract managers, rather than really driving business performance based on meeting user needs. The result? An uneven playing field, with the CIO role in government varying hugely by department and agency.

There is no better time to be in a senior digital role if information and data flows can be harnessed into creating great digital services, but to do that we have to put digital leaders and Chief Operating Officers (COOs) in the driving seat across government. In Justice, DEFRA and elsewhere we are already seeing huge changes as a result.


This is why the governance model we need now is more analogous to service design than procurement of technology. We need helpful web services, appropriate tools to iterate and develop new features, outstanding data analysis and resources like We need fewer meetings between large budget holders to discuss procurement, and more stand-up meetings and daily releases based on user need. Or in short, we can do much more, more quickly by using the web, and digital tools and services internally, to collaborate.

Today we published the Digital by Default Service Standard, a guide for all involved in the delivery of digital services. This is governance writ large: inclusive, transparent and requiring collaboration and regular input and learning. Compared with existing governance models which are paper-based, hierarchical, exclusive and slow to change, this is a long overdue shift. Governance is central to upholding a culture, so ours should be web-based, user-focused, and participative.

In short, we are not just on the web, but of the web. And our culture and governance must reflect that.

There will be more to follow. The service manual for CTOs is in alpha, being reviewed with colleagues across the government’s estate. The team will report back in the next 30 days with our view on governance structures and boards - but do expect our future governance to be web based, in beta and open to subsequent change.

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  1. Comment by Digital Governance Fails Because We’re Afraid of Cultural Change — lucid plot, by Jonathan Kahn posted on

    […] right? It’s starting to happen. The Government Digital Service (who we met earlier) are on a mission to bring cultural change to the UK Government, through the principle of “digital by default”: digital services so good that people […]

  2. Comment by Inculcating better open data to seed civil society – Lentor SolutionsLentor Solutions posted on

    […] web standards? Well other standards are probably important too but as this Government Digital Service (UK) blog,  puts it succinctly, the dominant culture now is “not just on the web, but of the […]

  3. Comment by brownie3003 posted on

  4. Comment by open data, big data, open goverment, civil service, civil society | Open Government Blog posted on

    [...] But regular readers of this blog will know that the concept of openness goes far beyond the data, transparency and digitisation initiatives that are often the focus of government activity. The internet in particular gives us a huge opportunity to make a breakthrough on both wide and deep participation and collaboration, and to rethink the boundary between the state, the citizen and the private and third sectors. There is much for governments to learn and digest, not least from the open cultures and governance pioneered by the internet generation. Mike Bracken, executive director of the UK Government Digital Service, sums it up nicely when he says “we are not just on the web, but of the web.” [...]

  5. Comment by shodgkinson posted on

    Great stuff! I deeply admire the vision and energy behind the citizen-centric-design digital strategy thinking. The capabilities of technology and the way folks use it have changed so much in the past decade, so the time is ripe for Government to change its grip on how digital services are used and managed to drive innovation in service delivery.

    Hmmm ... I agree wholeheartedly with the 'just get stuck in and give it go' approach - it is refreshing and necessary. What I am pondering, however, is the apparent over-simplification of the challenges of driving sustainable change through the diverse and complex organs of government. It strikes me that we need to ponder a bit more what the CIO role was actually intended to be about, how it was set up, what worked, what did not and why in order to avoid a scenario where the new generation of digital leaders just end up in 3-5 years time in the same position as the CIOs are today.

    In the end there are a series of very deep-seated conundrums relating to integration, responsiveness, efficiency and innovation that stem from the organisational diversity created by the Westminster system. CIOs have been largely beating their heads against a brick wall for the past decade attempting to advocate for a more holistic, cross-agency, citizen-centric, view of how ICT can transform public services ... call it 'government online, call it e-government, call it 'government 2.0', call it what you will. As Larry Singer famously observed in the US, the CIO quest was too often 'one hand clapping'. The CIOs were the only executives charged with a cross-cutting and strategic perspective regarding technology. Agency line executives just carried on focusing on delivery of their discrete stove-piped outputs.

    The problem is that, in the end, 'digital services' are just ICT services (as well) and will likely inherit similar conundrums relating to the balancing/optimisation of integration, responsiveness, efficiency and innovation in a very complex federated organisational environment. Hmmm ... how to learn from history and avoid making the same mistakes again? Making digital services =core business is a good start, but making this stick (really) will require that department secretaries become fully accountable for digital services success in order to align the various agendas in play in any large department.

    My sense is that the emergence of the consumerised digital economy, cloud services, mobile device/app ecosystems, unstructured data analytics etc. offer up game-changing opportunities to do all this better ... new tools will enable new ways of managing and organising ... so I'm optimistic! My caution, however, is don't throw the CIO baby out with the digital bathwater by bringing in a whole new cohort of digital leaders with limited comprehension of the reality of the government beast and how to create sustainable reforms.

    We need to understand better how to craft an organic and resilient organisational design for digital services that does not simply repeat the over-centralisation (inertia!) and over-decentralisation (chaos!) errors of past generations of ICT-enabled business solutions. Discuss.

    Dr Steve Hodgkinson, Ovum

  6. Comment by Andy PowellAndy Powell posted on

    forgive the plug, but you touch on required changes in capability (new skill sets) and this is one of three themes that we'll be looking at in our forthcoming (and free) symposium in May, the other two being new new modes of engagement and new working practices.

    Eduserv Symposium 2013: In with the New
    May 16, London

    Details at

    Our focus will be on both government and the third sector, so this event may be of interest to readers here.