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Government Digital Service relevance is fading, says Commons Committee

According to a report, GDS is losing authority and the ability to deliver digital change, and calls for its purpose to be renewed, along with the appointment of digital champions

The departure of key senior figures in the Cabinet Office and the Government Digital Service (GDS) mean that the role of the unit is now unclear and lacking in authority to drive digital change across public sector, a report has found.

The typically blistering report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee follows an enquiry into the government’s ability to drive its digital ambitions. It noted that national digital momentum has slowed and that the UK is being overtaken by other countries.

A key conclusion of the report is that the lack of political leadership in digitisation since Francis Maude left his role as minister for the Cabinet Office during the coalition government has significantly affected the GDS’s standing in terms of its relevance.

In addition, the departure of other senior GDS figures has resulted in a slowing in the government’s ability to drive the digital agenda across departments.

“The potential that digital government can bring is huge – transforming the relationship between the citizen and the state, saving money and making public services more efficient and agile,” said the chair of the Science and Technology Committee, Norman Lamb.

“However, it is clear that the current digital service offered by the government has lost momentum and is not transforming the citizen-state relationship as it could,” he added.

To address the current situation, the report has called for the appointment of ministerial digital champions in every Whitehall department by the end of 2019 to push innovation and digitisation across departments.

The GDS should also revisit its purpose, the report noted, adding that its aim should be to “provide advice to departments when needed, but also to devise and enforce minimum standards consistently across government digital services”.

During the committee’s inquiry, it has emerged that effective use of data is a key aspect to allow digital transformation across the government and to deliver better services.

According to the report, the UK has a lot to learn from Estonia, and noted that its use of single unique identifiers improves citizen service provision significantly, as people could view all the data the government holds about them and what departments are doing with it.

“The government should ensure there is a national debate on single unique identifiers for citizens to use when accessing public services, along with the right of the citizen to know exactly what the government is doing with their data,” Lamb said.

“In the UK, we have no idea when and how government departments are accessing and using our data. We could learn from the very different relationship between citizen and the state in Estonia,” it added.

While the report highlighted steps the government has taken to address that point, such as the creation of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation and the ongoing efforts around the National Data Strategy, there are other challenges to be tackled.

According to the committee, the government “does not understand citizen’s views on how their data should be used”. It added that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) should ensure that the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation annually assesses public opinion on government data use.

Tackling legacy systems is another major hurdle to digitisation. While acknowledging efforts across individual departments towards the eradication of old systems, the report noted that “the same problems frequently recur”.

Such problems, according to the committee, indicated that advice around eliminating legacy from the centre, particularly from the GDS, has not been implemented.

An audit of all the systems that need to be replaced across government should be carried out, the report recommended, along with an action plan with expected timescales and estimated costs, with the HM Treasury resourcing the overall refresh.

Investment is also needed to address skills shortages, another hurdle to digitisation outlined in the report, which also increases the risk of cyber attacks.

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