Halfway through the Government Digital Service transformation project

Halfway through a two-year project to move public services online, the Government Digital Service (GDS) is on track, but what challenges lie ahead?

One year into a two-year project to move 25 of the most used government services online, and the Government Digital Service (GDS) claims to be on track.

The ambitious project kicked off in January 2013, allowing 400 working days to complete the transformation of 25 services from visa applications to benefit claims, which were identified as the first “exemplars” to be redeveloped. By the end of the 400-day period, the 25 exemplars should be live or in the last stage of public testing. 

The government claims digitising public services will make cumulative savings of £1.2bn in this Parliament, rising to an estimated £1.7bn a year after 2015.

So far, one service – student finance – is live, with 16 services in the last beta stage of testing, five in alpha and three still in the early discovery stages of testing.

At the Sprint 14 government conference in London, the GDS demonstrated five live public services which had been digitised but are currently still being tested in alpha or beta. They included registering to vote (Cabinet Office), applying for a visa (Home Office), PAYE for employees (HM Revenue & Customs), view your driving record (Department for Transport) and prison visits (Ministry of Justice).

The GDS has laid the groundwork, but will the departments be able to step up and deliver the same standards over the next year?

Alan Mather, a partner at Rainmaker Solutions and former IT chief who ran the team that built the Government Gateway and direct.gov – a predecessor of Gov.uk – believes government is on the right track to delivering digital public services.

“Government IT has long been due a significant overhaul,” he said. “And there is no better way to deliver new IT systems than in iterative, user-led releases that are fast paced and focused on delivering capability that people want.”


Whether the government delivers in time or not, it has vowed to be transparent throughout the entire process. In July 2013, it launched a website to track the progress of the 25 transactions.

And in January 2014, the government shared the results of a review into its digital strategy. It reported that “digital by default” was on track, with the 25 exemplar moving forward and one service going live, but it said 200 websites still needed to move over to the central government Gov.uk website, which it expects to complete by July 2014, four months later than predicted.

Mather said no other government has ever published so much. “But what we often get is data, not information,” he said. “How much is GDS spending? On what?”

He said the government should also reveal release dates of projects for citizens to track how it is doing compared with its plans.

“It can be OK to miss a date or to spend more money than planned, but, right now, that’s all invisible,” he said.

Universal Credit

One of the exemplars to come under intense scrutiny in recent months is the Department for Work and Pension’s (DWP) Universal Credit. So much so, Computer Weekly reported last year that GDS had taken a step away from the troubled project, due to disagreements over the new approach to IT development.

The DWP had to write off £40m of the IT work delivered on Universal Credit, with a further £90m to be scrapped before the controversial welfare reform programme goes fully live in 2017/18.

The departure of the GDS from this project has now caused further worries that the DWP will not be able to obtain the skills required to replace GDS at an affordable cost.

Skills and recruitment

Georgina O’Toole, director at Tech Market View, said resources and skills may slow the whole project down. “GDS appears to be quite stretched,” she said.

With government budgets tightening, O’Toole said the GDS and departments could do with more resources to achieve their goals.

“I’m not saying they’re going to fall behind,” she said. “But it will be quite challenging upskilling the departments themselves.”

The transformation of digital services requires fresh blood, new ideas and fresh thinking, but O’Toole said she was not sure how easy that will be to achieve.

HMRC has recently announced its plans to recruit 50 digital specialists in the north-east England to work in a digital centre, and the DWP will launch a “digital academy”, but will other departments be able to create talent on this scale?

Mather said the GDS needed to ensure that its values, aims and objectives are spread throughout the fast growing department.

GDS has grown to around 250 people since its inception three years ago and Mather said this growth has meant there is not yet a “GDS DNA” outside of the original core team.

“If you ask one person what the mission and deliverables are, you will get one answer; ask others and you will not get the same,” he said.

Mather also isn’t sure if GDS head Mike Bracken, government CTO Liam Maxwell, Cabinet Minister Francis Maude or chief procurement office Bill Crothers will be in the same positions a year from now. He said those key GDS advocates need to “embed that DNA both inside everyone in GDS and in everyone that GDS comes into contact with”.

End of old-style government procurement

“While there is a lot of excitement about the new exemplar applications, behind the scenes pretty much every department is struggling with the upcoming expiry of their IT contracts,” noted Mather.

The government’s digital strategy encourages the implementation of shorter lower value contracts with SMEs, and the use of cloud-based services to save on costs. Last week, the government published rules to reduce the dominance of a small number of IT suppliers offering inflexible contracts and, at the Sprint 14 Conference, Cabinet Minister Francis Maude committed to spending a further £100m with small businesses.

But this can be alien to some departments who are used to dealing with one large supplier, despite poor performance and providing insufficient value for money.

“No-one has yet successfully figured out the new model - and yet they have to make the leap whilst simultaneously delivering IT in a new way,” said Mather.

The Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has had to make that leap. It is in the final stages of implementing a “tower” model approach to its IT. By replacing its soon-to-expire outsourced Fujitsu contract, the tower approach allows DECC to break down its IT contract into as many component parts as possible, and find different specialist companies – mainly sourced from G-Cloud – to supply the various technologies. 

But DECC was one of the first departments to change its approach to IT in line with new government digital standards. It began the project in 2011, in the early days of GDS, and had to develop the new model without a clear strategy, which took up more time in the early days of planning.

Now the challenge is for other departments to follow DECC’s example and change their existing IT strategies.

GDS has clearly put the wheels in motion over the past 200 days, but now it is up to the capabilities of individual departments to match this and deliver change.

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