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GDS needs to ‘re-equip’ to support digital transformation

Institute for Government report says the government could save £2bn by 2020 through digital, but calls GDS to re-establish and evolve its role

A report by the Institute for Government (IfG) estimates that the government could realise up to £2bn in efficiency savings by creating better digital services.

However, the report also criticised the lack of a central digital strategy from the Government Digital Service (GDS).

“We found that GDS has played an important role in bringing new digital capability into government. But, in the absence of a new digital strategy, its role is unclear. GDS needs to re-equip itself to support a government that now has rapidly developing digital capability, and high ambitions for change,” the report said.

The report also called on GDS to put “less emphasis on developing applications for cross-government use” and only do so when there isn’t a market alternative.

A strategy for digital govenrment, based on the £450m GDS was given in 2015’s spending review was originally due before Christmas 2015, but has yet to be published.  

The team at GDS is currently working to that strategy, but Kevin Cunnington, the organisation’s new director general, is due to publish a strategy in the coming months. 

The IfG report highlights the transformative power of creating easy to use digital services, but said there is a lack of clear leadership and commitment from the top.

While the government has made headway in certain areas, such as HM Revenue and Customs’ tax credit service, it needs to move from “small changes to transformation”.

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“The leadership of these changes will have to come from the very top of government, not the top of IT departments. At present, that leadership is not in place. GDS is under new management, and it will take some time to solidify their approach to cross-government digital change,” the report said.

GDS has gone through significant changes over the past few months, with the departure of five senior figures in the organisation, and it’s likely to take some time before a “new GDS” finds its feet. 

The IfG added that as government ministers are “distracted by the challenge of preparing for Brexit”, without clear leadership, we risk “that digital teams will continue to be viewed as website designers, brought in only at the very end of policy design processes”.

Daniel Thornton, who wrote the report, said “tinkering around the edges of digital government has only taken us so far” and government needs to step up.

“The starting point is recognising that digital is not just for geeks anymore – everyone in government must work to make it a success,” he said.

“There are huge potential savings to be made if the government gets this right – which makes it all the more disappointing that the prime minister and the chancellor have not been as explicit about their commitment to digital government as their predecessors.”

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