The Sprint series of events have been the main showcase for the Government Digital Service to speak to the broad church that makes up their constituency. Other digital government folk from other Departments, policy wonks with an interest, guests from foreign climes, suppliers large and small. I think I heard mention of 700 delegates. I could quite believe it as (a) software continues to eat the world and nobody can deny this anymore (b) ‘govtech’ has had a surprisingly high profile one way or another during all the Brexit shenanigans and (c) that was a very big and packed room!

In more general terms I hadn’t been to a Sprint in years. It was a lot different. A lot more people in suits (not a bad thing – just a different tribe), a lot more senior people, a lot more Government and a little less Digital in terms of conversations. A sign of the times I suspect. There were plenty of familiar faces and I caught up with many people but the sheer scales means I suspect I missed most people I knew who attended.

I’m not going to provide a forensic event report but there were a few big takeaways and broad themes worth noting.

First up though good on the team and speakers for facing up to the recent GOV.UK/Data/Dominic Cummings story from the off and consistently through the day. Without directly referencing the Buzzfeed story or the subsequent Twitter storm they made a clear case that it was about getting better, more comprehensive analytics across across full user journeys that might include multiple services via multiple Gov teams under the hood (especially around proactive rather than reactive user needs – ‘start a business’ rather than ‘renew my passport’.) Now whether you are inclined to believe the explanation is a personal decision based on where you put your trust but I thought they did a good job to reinforce what I always thought was the heart of it all. There is definitely a time for the tin-foil hat but this wasn’t it…

…that said as well as this was done I do fear it was somewhat weakened by the hard push (again – how many times is this?) for a single, Government provided ‘Digital Identity’. This whole thing comes with so much baggage and it remains the point where public trust always seems to break. The case that it is needed to provide more personalised content and services ‘because all the big internet companies do’ feels more than a little flawed as well but I guess we need to have this debate every couple of years. This will 100% fire up countless Cummings conspiracies though. No doubt at all.

Brexit (and it was almost always Brexit not EU Exit today) is apparently;

  • an accelerator not a distraction
  • an opportunity
  • a crisis not to be wasted
  • a catalyst for collaboration
  • a lot of work

OK then. Got it.

The new ‘five pillars’ of the GDS strategy were pretty interesting – especially the order in which they were presented. I doubt that was accidental and it was a nice re-framing of things for this (apparently third) era of GDS;

I really think the focus on security and legacy is a welcome change – that isn’t to say it wasn’t take seriously before – it was – but it is where many of the hard yards remain. God knows some progress on data is due and while there is a long way to go with user experience (and service design) I’d suggest UK Government leads the way on this.

The weird thing was framing it as a 2030 strategy then talking about – what seemed to be – near term objectives. I’ve long favoured the ‘six months or thirty years’ theory on strategy timelines. This seems way too long term.

There was a lot of love for ‘common components’ and ‘platforms’. PAY and NOTIFY were frequently mentioned as success stories (rightly so) as was the GOV.UK design system. Is the ‘Government as a Platform’ (in the GDS rather than broader sense) concept getting renewed momentum? I, like many others, feel like there are a bunch of opportunities out their to build on PAY and NOTIFY with similar products. Fingers crossed.

The announcement of the new Government Chief Digital and Information Officer (a little weakened by it being on Civil Services Jobs the day before) should shake things up a bit. It is a big job, a rare one for this kind of focus as it is at Permanent Secretary level. £180,000. Get to updating those CVs!

Alison Pritchard was a great MC for the day. She was funny, charismatic and also more than capable of hammering home her speaking points.

Finishing with an all female panel of senior leaders at GDS (including a great closing talk from Jen Allum) was powerful and great to see. Zero tokenism. Just the right people, talking about priorities and they are women. Nice.

Thanks for the invite GDS – a day well spent.

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