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Cabinet Office updates spend controls

Revamped spend controls policy aims to give departments more flexibility, but requires them to keep a 15-month pipeline plan of any current and intended technology spend above £5m

The Cabinet Office has updated its spending controls policy to focus more on collaboration, transparency and standards.

The updated policy calls for departments to record “all existing and future digital spend over £100,000 and technology spend over £5m” in a pipeline document, showing its plans for the next 15 months. “The pipeline should include all known future spend above these thresholds, even if your organisation has not secured a funding source,” the policy summary said.  

Cabinet Office’s powers to control spend on government IT contracts were first introduced in 2010m, and reinforced by the then Cabinet office minister Francis Maude in 2012, meaning any departments wanting to spend more than £100m on IT contracts would need approval from the Government Digital Service (GDS).

Like previous versions of the spend controls, departments “must also add any novel or contentious digital and technology spend to your pipeline, regardless of value”, according to the policy summary.

“This lets the Cabinet Office review any areas of low, but disproportionately complex or risky activity. You should be able to spot novel or contentious spend when you categorise activities during the triage process,” the document said.

“Your GDS senior technology adviser will work with you to clarify if an activity is novel, contentious or business as usual spend.”

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The spend controls have arguably been one of the most successful initiatives by GDS and Cabinet Office to date. During 2015/16, GDS helped to save £339m through its spend controls and approval processes for Whitehall IT projects, according to Cabinet Office figures. 

In late 2016, GDS boss Kevin Cunnington promised an overhaul to spend controls, aiming to make them more collaborative and increase engagement.

Last year, the National Audit Office criticised Cabinet Office and GDS for failing to sustain its framework of standards and guidance, saying it was too broad, which left too much scope for “interpretation and disagreement”.  

“The combination of strict controls and uncertainty about guidance has made it difficult for departments to understand assurance requirements,” the NAO said at the time.

A GDS spokesperson said the new measures mean GDS “will have more time to support departments to design the best approach” and that looking forward will make it “easier for central government to identity potentially contentious spend”.

“The new digital and technology spend controls will strengthen GDS collaboration with departments. The same rigour will still be evident in the new pipeline approach to planned digital and technology spend, which encourages GDS and departments to engage earlier,” the spokesperson said.

The spend controls also caps consultancy spend at £1m, telling central government they must submit a request for any consultancy expenditure over £1m.

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