Are there more changes ahead for the Government Digital Service?

As we all know, the Government Digital Service (GDS) was awarded £450m by George Osborne in his Autumn Statement last year. A business plan detailing how that money will be spent was due to be published in December.

It never appeared.

Computer Weekly was told in January that the plan would instead be published for GDS’s Sprint 16 event in February, when the Cabinet Office unit laid out its priorities for the next year. No plan was forthcoming. So far it still has not appeared.

One insider who claims to have seen an early version of the plan called it “rubbish”, and said that it was full of “meaningless marketing fluff.”

Barely four months after Osborne surprised many people – including some in GDS – by giving such a significant financial backing, there are already rumours circulating over the future of GDS, with speculation that further changes to the organisation and its remit may be under consideration.

Computer Weekly sources suggest that Civil Service CEO and Cabinet Office permanent secretary John Manzoni is still not entirely convinced about GDS’s remit. Manzoni has in the past publicly stated that he thinks expertise is best placed in Whitehall departments, not at the centre, and some sources close to the situation speculate that he feels more of GDS’s digital development work would be better reallocated to departmental digital teams.

Some of the digital suppliers that have worked with GDS have also privately expressed frustration at what they see as a lack of strategy and vision for where GDS is going next.

At the heart of GDS’s plans is the government as a platform (GaaP) strategy – developing a series of standardised components for use across Whitehall to eliminate duplication of functionality. Early examples include Gov.uk Pay, a common payments platform, and Gov.uk Notify, for sending status updates on the progress of transactions.

However, according to sources, some departments are already pushing back on these initiatives.

There are concerns about the cost and effort for departmental IT teams in unstitching existing tools used for payments and having to integrate a different platform such as Gov.uk Pay into their wider applications.

One source suggested that GDS is unwilling to own the risk of any problems with Gov.uk Notify and offer guaranteed service levels to departments – effectively, those departments expect GDS to take responsibility if anything goes wrong. If they were contracting an external supplier to provide similar software, that supplier would inevitably offer a service-level agreement and ownership of risk (at a cost, of course).

While nobody criticises the intent of the GaaP plan, nor the capability of the platforms being developed, the reality is that these new tools can’t always be easily plugged in to existing software applications. If departments are to use these new platforms, they would only do so at such a point when they look to replace their existing systems, which for many could be several years away.

If that is the case, it makes the business case for those platforms much harder to justify within the timescale of a parliamentary cycle.

Perhaps the highest profile platform is Gov.uk Verify, the identity assurance service that will allow citizens to prove they are who they say they are when logging in to government websites.

Verify has been in public use as a beta test version since October 2013, and is due to transition to “live” status next month, with as many as 50 digital government services using the system in the coming months.

But still there are question marks. The Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC), the IT authority for the NHS, told Computer Weekly that Verify is not secure enough for use in the NHS, and is likely to take a “hybrid” approach to meet the high security expectations of medical records.

The backchat around Verify suggests that some departments find it too complex, and that it is yet to make the grade for the most secure applications such as passports and benefit claims.

GDS’s programme director for Verify, Janet Hughes, is a fantastic champion and advocate for the project. In conversation with Computer Weekly recently, she accepted there are criticisms of Verify but stressed that the aim was never to please everyone right from the start – the iterative nature of its development means that any concerns will be addressed, and more services will come on board in time.

In some ways, that is a fair assessment of the wider challenge that GDS faces. The benefits of digital government are widely acknowledged, but the agile, iterative nature of the digital approach does not always sit comfortably with civil service management culture.

The fiasco around rural payments was the perfect example, where a digital-by-default approach was forced on the project where perhaps it was not appropriate for a large, complex programme with fixed requirements and a fixed EU deadline to meet.

GDS has had to change its own culture in the months since last year’s general election. With the departure of former chief Mike Bracken it has shifted from being a visionary, disruptive organisation challenging departments to change, to a more collaborative, conciliatory operation under Bracken’s successor, Stephen Foreshew-Cain. The mantra now is less of, “We’re here to change how government works” and more “We’re here when you need us, and we’re with you all the way”. Foreshew-Cain often uses a slide in public presentations that summarises the approach as, “We’ve got your back”.

There is no suggestion that anyone in government is backing away from its commitment to digital services – in addition to the £450m GDS budget, Osborne also gave £1.8bn for digital transformation across departments, plus £1.3bn to HM Revenue & Customs for its digital tax strategy.

But many people close to the government digital community feel that the management and organisation of digita l delivery across Whitehall is not yet the best it could be. Until the GDS business plan is unveiled, it’s inevitable that such questions will continue to be asked.

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