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GDS faces review by public spending watchdog

National Audit Office wants to review Government Digital Service's relations with Whitehall departments as a result of 2015 rural payments IT problems

The Government Digital Service (GDS) is set to be reviewed by public spending watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO), to examine its “achievements and the challenges it faces”.

The review comes as a result of criticism by the NAO over GDS’s role in the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) IT systems that led to a new digital service for farm subsidies being withdrawn in March 2015.

In a progress report on how RPA subsequently rectified problems with payments to farmers since the IT problems last year, the NAO revealed plans to take a fresh look at GDS too.

“At this stage, we have not examined how GDS now engages with other government departments to ensure it offers the support needed. However, the NAO will shortly be undertaking a review of GDS’s achievements and the challenges it faces, looking in particular at whether the centre of government is supporting better use of technology and business transformation in government,” said the NAO report.

“This recommendation was made in the context of senior management failures arising from the RPA, the Department [for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] and GDS not working together effectively, and not being able to resolve differences in strategic priorities and visions. No changes have been made to formal processes in response to the recommendation; however, cultural changes are being made that aim to reduce tensions that may arise in the future. GDS is no longer significantly involved in the [RPA] programme.”

A previous NAO review into the RPA problems, published in December 2015, cited “inappropriate behaviour” among senior leaders in GDS and the Rural Payments Agency as a major factor. Costs of the project spiralled from an initial £154m to £215m – 40% over the original budget.

“GDS had a significant involvement in the development of the IT systems and we reported previously that it did not provide the support the department needed,” stated the latest NAO progress report.

“The RPA has continued developing the IT environment without further significant involvement of GDS. The RPA told us that GDS’s withdrawal from the programme has enabled a change in the implementation approach, including reverting to a more traditional deployment and release cycle rather than the continuous deployment approach that GDS had previously advocated.”

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The NAO report added: “The department has told us that its working relationship with GDS has recently been more constructive.”

The watchdog has been critical of GDS in other reviews in the past. A report in June 2015 found that many government departments were not making the savings they expected from adopting digital services under the GDS strategy.

In July 2014, the NAO criticised GDS over its approach to calculating IT savings made as a result of its digital programmes. A report at the time said the method used to calculate savings by GDS was inconsistent and the claimed savings had weaknesses. “The evidence for savings is hard to follow,” it said.

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