GDS must respond openly and honestly to NAO criticism

MPs are often at their most lyrically creative when they sit on the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and are given free rein to criticise those they see as miscreants wasting taxpayers’ money.

So this week we saw yet another problem IT project under scrutiny, described as “some form of a Greek tragedy” and a senior government IT chief labelled as “Mr Fancypants”.

We also saw an unprecedented interjection from the head of the National Audit Office (NAO), Amyas Morse, stressing how serious and unusual it was for the NAO to criticise the personal behaviour of senior individuals involved in the project.

The programme in question was the new digital service for the Rural Payments Agency (RPA), which was suspended earlier this year in favour of paper forms, is now 40% over budget and risks costing the UK millions more in EU fines.

We’re all depressingly used to reading NAO reports critical of government IT projects, and much of the findings were repetitively familiar for anyone that has read similar reports over the years. But the most disturbing thing is that by now it was meant to be different.

The Government Digital Service (GDS) was not alone in receiving criticism from the NAO and nor can it be solely to blame. But for all the good things GDS has done elsewhere, the RPA project was the first and biggest programme with the sort of complexity long associated with government IT, that GDS was brought in to resolve.

Indeed, previous RPA projects that failed expensively were held up as precisely the sort of thing GDS would ensure never happened again. Yet here, GDS’s involvement seemed only to make the situation worse.

Last week, the NAO also reported on the failed e-Borders project – an initiative that first went wrong before GDS was created. But problems still continue around the replacement for the UK’s ageing border systems, and while the NAO did not specifically mention GDS’s more recent involvement, insiders say that borders sits alongside RPA as the sort of failure that was not meant to happen now GDS is on the scene. The NAO report will be discussed by PAC next week – expect more lyrical fireworks.

GDS has just received £450m to drive the digital transformation of government, and will be a major influence in the £1.8bn given to Whitehall departments for the same purpose. This is, of course, a good thing.

But RPA and e-Borders have raised serious questions about GDS’s capabilities in more complex digital projects, as well as highlighting the lack of digital skills across the whole civil service.

GDS likes to be open about its successes, but has too often kept quiet about its failures. With billions of pounds of taxpayers’ cash to be spent on digital projects in the next five years, GDS needs to show that it has learned the painful lessons of RPA and e-Borders, and to do so publicly and honestly.