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What next for digital government post-election?

With a new Cabinet Office minister in place and an ambitious transformation strategy to deliver, what does the future hold for digital government?

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There has been a lot of upheaval across government in recent months. A hasty general election has led to former Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer losing his Ipswich seat and being replaced as minister by one of the prime minister’s close allies, Damian Green. 

With Brexit set to take the spotlight in the coming months, digital government is likely to fall further down the list of priorities.

The Government Digital Service (GDS) has also seen changes. In the space of a year, almost its entire senior leadership team has been replaced and its key programmes are struggling with uptake. With an ambitious transformation strategy to deliver, strong leadership is key to drive the digital agenda, but what does the future now hold for digital government?

As a result of the general election and prime minister Theresa May’s cabinet reshuffle, Ashford MP Damian Green has taken the helm at the Cabinet Office. However, Green has also been appointed first secretary of state, a role that gives him seniority over other ministers and effectively makes him deputy prime minister.

Green has always been loyal to May and is known for being pro-EU and opposed to Brexit. He is likely to focus on his role as first secretary, negotiating a soft Brexit and access to the single market – which is presumably why May appointed him. Although this, particularly access to the single market, is positive for the UK’s tech industry, it does suggest that digital government and GDS will not be high on Green’s list of priorities.

Julian David, CEO of TechUK, told Computer Weekly that the Conservatives’ election manifesto had an “unprecedented focus on the digital economy, making positive pledges on the delivery of public services and a commitment to a smarter state agenda” and that it was encouraging to see someone with Green’s experience take charge. But he added: “As he takes on other additional responsibilities, we encourage him not to lose sight of the significant and ambitious targets set out for government transformation.”

David said: “With Brexit likely to stretch civil service time and resources, and demographic pressures requiring more efficient public services, it is more critical than ever that the government continues this transformation apace. To achieve this, it must work closely with the private sector to take advantage of the resources and expertise available from the UK’s world-leading tech companies.”

Since Francis Maude stepped down in 2015, the Cabinet Office has had three ministers – first Matt Hancock, then Ben Gummer, and now Green. GDS itself has also gone through a plethora of changes at the top. Since the departure of Mike Bracken in the summer of 2015, the organisation has had two leaders in as many years. 

Other senior figures have also left, including former GDS CTO Andy Beale; former director of the Gov.uk Verify identity assurance programme and head of strategy, policy and departmental engagement, Janet Hughes; common technology services director Iain Patterson; and director of data, Paul Maltby.

A recent Freedom of Information request revealed that only one of those in the GDS leadership team that was in place on 31 March 2016 still remains – hardly conducive to a strong and stable leadership. 

Without specifically pointing the finger at the Cabinet Office and GDS, a common denominator often leading to big IT projects failing is a high turnover of senior leadership – as seen with e-Borders and Universal Credit.  

Strong leadership required

Rob Anderson, principal analyst, central government, at GlobalData (formerly known as Kable), said “a strong central character” is needed to drive the “more controversial policies” such as Gov.uk Verify, the government’s identity assurance platform.

“There is no evidence to suggest that Damian Green will take on that mantle,” he said. “One possibility would be to appoint a junior minister with appropriate credentials to manage the digital programme within the Cabinet Office.

“If this doesn’t happen, there is a real danger of GDS further haemorrhaging senior management and losing more credibility with operational departments, which will cause any coherent digital strategy to unravel.”

GDS seems to have struggled to find its feet in recent years, and perhaps things are already showing signs of unravelling. A National Audit Office (NAO) report, published in March, stressed the need for a change in the way GDS operates, saying its remit is too broad.

While the report highlighted some of the good work GDS had done in reshaping “government’s approach to technology and transformation” through promoting agile development and “breaking down traditional barriers between IT and other functions”, it found the organisation had also struggled to adapt to its changing role. 

The NAO report has yet to be discussed in Parliament because of the general election, but should be on the agenda over the next few months.

The future of GDS

The 2015 spending review saw GDS receive its biggest budget to date – £450m to spend on the common technology services (CTS), government-as-a-platform (GaaP) and Gov.uk Verify programmes until 2020.

In return, the organisation is expected to deliver £3.5bn in savings – £1.3bn from its GaaP programme, £1.1bn from Verify and £1.1bn by further rolling out CTS to deliver shared and flexible technology for all the civil service.

But it seems unlikely GDS will ever meet that rather ambitious savings target. For a start, CTS has effectively been mothballed. Sources told Computer Weekly earlier this year that CTS was continuing certain existing projects, but was not taking on any new work. The sources also claimed that GDS director general Kevin Cunnington had never seen CTS as part of GDS’s future. 

The £1.3bn savings figure for GaaP is also unlikely to see the light of day. The programme has generally not fared well with government departments, experiencing low take-up, particularly from larger departments that are needed to justify the business case to drive it forward. Critics are often quick to question why GDS feels it has to develop services in-house, rather than use external suppliers.

Will Verify remain?

Perhaps the most notable case is the identity assurance platform, Verify. The government has reiterated several times that it is committed to achieving 25 million users of the platform by 2020. In the 2015/16 financial year, Verify accounted for 21% of all GDS expenditure.

The Conservatives’ election manifesto even made specific mention of the programme, promising to make the platform available more widely in other areas, such as online banking. However, Verify has attracted much criticism, both within and outside of government. As of February this year, the platform had only 1.1 million users – a far cry from 25 million.

The NAO report on GDS also highlighted the problems with Verify, saying it had been “undermined by its performance and GDS has lost focus on the longer-term strategic case for the programme”. 

The report went on: “The current business case is based on reducing duplication or simplifying the way new services are developed. But Verify has been difficult for some people to use, departments have taken longer and found it more difficult to adopt than expected, and GDS has had to soften its approach to mandatory use.”

The NAO said there was little incentive for departments to adopt Verify. HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), in particular, has been reluctant to use the platform, with sources suggesting it had no confidence in the system. In fact, HMRC is developing its own identity service, based on the Government Gateway

Computer Weekly asked GDS to provide information about savings delivered so far from the programmes, to confirm the status of CTS, whether it still saw 25 million users of Verify by 2020 as realistic, and whether it was still aiming for £3.5bn in savings based on the £450m GDS budget.

“GDS is committed to delivering savings and supporting the delivery of great public services,” was the response from a Cabinet Office spokesperson, who added that the figures were not yet publicly available.

TechUK’s David said that “common platforms, processes and technologies will unlock the huge potential promised by the erosion of barriers to sharing resources and information across the public sector”, but added that the government needed “a clear roadmap for how its flagship projects – such as Verify – will hit their challenging usage targets”.

Driving change

Before the general election, the Institute for Government (IfG) highlighted the lack of leadership to drive the digital agenda in central government, and called for the prime minister to appoint a digital minister. 

This year, the government also published its long-awaited transformation strategy, which would, according to then Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer, “change the relationship between the government and the public”. Although the strategy was widely regarded as an ambitious document, ticking all the right boxes, the consensus was that it would need strong leadership to drive it forward.  

The strategy promised to take “digital transformation further than ever before” by prioritising an overhaul of the civil service, developing skills and culture, using shared platforms, changing back-office processes and systems, and increasing collaboration.

In a blog post ahead of the election, the IfG’s Daniel Thornton said that although the strategy set out how the government “could embrace the digital age”, it did not give any steer on “what would be done when” and failed to put any timelines or targets in the strategy. 

GlobalData’s Anderson said strong leadership was needed to drive both the digital agenda overall, and the implementation of the government’s transformation strategy.

He said the strategy was “mostly a restatement of activities that were already under way, and would mostly continue unaffected by political turmoil”.

TechUK’s David added: “The last government rightly identified the delivery of ambitious, joined-up, end-to-end public services as a priority. To deliver on this vision, the incoming government must establish a common understanding of transformation across the public sector, with the digital skills needed to deliver innovative public services embedded throughout the civil service.”

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