STC doubts government ‘digital by default’ strategy

The Science and Technology Committee (STC) questions Francis Maude over how much the 'digital by default' strategy can save the tax payer

The Science and Technology Committee (STC) has cast doubt on the government’s "digital by default" strategy in an open letter to Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude.

In the note from the commons select committee’s chair, Labour MP Andrew Miller said the STC had concerns that savings from moving government services online had yet to be proven.

“It is not evident to the committee that the government has a handle on measuring these savings,” Andrew Miller wrote. 

“We welcome your message that savings are being made but urge the government to be clearer about the detail of both savings being made as services become Digital by Default, as well as the costs of designing, or redesigning, the services.”

Security doubts

The STC also raised questions around the security of citizens' data after hearing evidence from Martyn Thomas, vice-president of the Royal Academy of Engineering and chair of the IT policy panel at the Institution of Engineering and Technology.

“The committee heard that the government does not keep up with privacy-enhancing technologies and uses ‘old, unpatched and non-updated software,’” wrote Miller. 

“We are concerned that inadequacies in government software may lead to security vulnerabilities.

“The committee would like to know whether the government is confident that software developed meets the highest engineering standards.”

Thomas also told the committee there was no guarantee that third-party providers of identity management would not have their own software issues, which would in turn be passed on to government systems if deployed.

“You told the committee that the government has an obligation to protect people’s data sensibly and effectively,” wrote Miller. 

“It appears that the public are unable to ascertain whether online government services are developed adequately to withstand cyber attacks.

“The committee suggests that the government should be clearer with the public about this."

Public awareness

The STC’s final criticism concerned public awareness of the digital by default strategy for government services. When Maude gave evidence to the committee, he claimed “word of mouth and a good user experience” were the best ways of raising profile, but Miller questioned whether this had any impact.

“There appears to be low public awareness of the digital by default strategy,” he wrote. “Has the government evaluated the effectiveness of these public awareness techniques?”

The open letter comes a few days after the Efficiency and Reform Group (ERG) – formed by Maude and chief secretary to the treasury Danny Alexander – claimed the government had made savings of £500m by controlling spending on IT and digitising a number of its services.

A Cabinet Office spokesman stuck by the strategy, saying it would deliver services “so good people will choose to use them” and save millions for the tax payer.

“The savings already delivered have been recognised by bodies such as the NAO, but we are working hard to improve the quality our data,” he said.

The spokesman also said the Cabinet Office was ensuring privacy and security was designed in to its identity assurance programme by working with experts, industry and government departments to develop the service.

“It will be based on published standards of security and information assurance, and identity providers will have to be certified as meeting these standards.”

He concluded: “We will formally respond to the Committee in due course.”

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