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Policy Exchange report calls for GDS to be moved to DCMS

Think-tank wants Government Digital Service to create a “single digital government account” for citizens, and says bringing the organisation into the Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport will improve focus on “all aspects of digital transformation”

The Policy Exchange think-tank believes the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) should be given responsibility for leading the digital transformation of government and that the Government Digital Service (GDS) should be moved over to the department.

In a report setting out how the UK could become a global leader in “govtech”, the think-tank argues that having the Cabinet Office lead on some aspects of digital transformation and DCMS on others is slowing its progress.

“While DCMS leads on the UK’s overall digital strategy, GDS currently remains largely under the departmental leadership of the Cabinet Office,” it said. “This divide adds organisational complexity, diffuses accountability and slows the overall progress of transformation.

“Given the Cabinet Office’s many other responsibilities, it often runs the risk of being distracted from the long-term work required for digital transformation. Bringing all of GDS together into DCMS would help create a more coherent Department for Digital and Culture, able to focus on all aspects of digital transformation across the public and private sector.”

The Cabinet Office and GDS recently lost responsibility for data policy to DCMS, in a move that caused mixed reactions across industry and government experts. Some said it was a sensible move because it gave data policy a chance as “GDS is dying in the Cabinet Office”, while others said it marked the “end of central UK authority for digital, data and technology”. 

The Policy Exchange believes that, over time, DCMS should also take over leadership of projects it currently shares with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), such as the artificial intelligence (AI) sector deal, and the newly created AI council. At the same time, it sees the sport part of DCMS moving to the Department of Health and Social Care. 

The report also said that the way the government is currently organised, with each department running its own services, makes it hard for datasets to work together, as departments and organisations in the public sector have “inherited rigid and fragmented data ownership models and are faced with the difficult task of attempting to modernise existing operating models”.

It added: “Organisational fragmentation in government comes hand-in-hand with a suite of siloed business components: disconnected data, siloed IT infrastructure and isolated pockets of IT and analytics skillsets, all of which hinder the ability to create data-driven services.

“Traditionally, government has struggled with early adopters. New programmes are generally expensive, risky and have an uncertain impact – which is difficult to reconcile with universal, free-at-the-point-of-use services. Even those that do work demand that their users deal with the occasional bug or quirk as the kinks are worked out.”

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The think-tank called for GDS to create a single digital government account, where citizens are in control of who has access to their data, allowing them to freely opt in and out of digital services. 

The account, which the report said would force different parts of government to work together and enable transparency, should show citizens which government services they are using, and which ones they can opt into.

It should also “present much more transparent information back to citizens on the performance of their local public services” and allow third parties to integrate their own services or design their own front end, said the report.

Ultimately, it said, the account should be a single point of focus for both citizens and government.

Figures from Public show that the UK govtech sector will be worth £20bn by 2025, and the Policy Exchange believes the UK is in prime position to become the “leading world hub” for govtech.

It said the government is already showing signs of delivering its transformation strategy vision, in which digital technology transforms the relationship between the citizen and the state, but warned that it cannot afford to slow down.

The report said technologies such as machine learning and automation could help create a “true smarter state”, ensuring government doesn’t lag behind the private sector.

“If Britain is to match the performance of the leading digital companies in the private sector, it will have to overcome three challenges: legacy systems, ensuring data security in a way people can trust, and breaking down the current top-down system that acts as a bottleneck, exacerbating skills shortages,” it said.

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