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GDS needs a clearer role, NAO is expected to say

Although the Government Digital Service has done well to change the government’s approach to digital transformation, there is a risk that its remit is still too broad, the National Audit Office is expected to say in a report due out tomorrow

The National Audit Office (NAO) is expected to release a report tomorrow calling on the Government Digital Service (GDS) to redefine its role as the government moves into a new phase of digital transformation.

In a press release published on the NAO website this morning (29 March) and seen by Computer Weekly but subsequently removed, with the URL returning a 404 error message, the NAO said that although GDS had been a key driver in helping “reshape the government’s approach to technology and transformation”, its remit was still unclear.

The creation of GDS laid the groundwork for changing government IT. In 2012, it launched its digital by default exemplar programme, aiming to complete the transformation of 25 services, ranging from visa applications to universal credit, which were identified as the first “exemplars” to be redeveloped.

But the results were mixed, and in a “lessons learned” exercise in 2015, “GDS identified positive net present values for only 12 of the 22 programmes for which data were available”, the NAO press release said.

Another issue has been a “culture clash” between departments and GDS, which was made evident in one of the exemplar programmes – the rural payments IT system.

A previous NAO review into the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) problems, published in December 2015, cited “inappropriate behaviour” among senior leaders in GDS and the RPA as a major factor. 

In the 2015 Autumn Statement, GDS received its largest budget yet, with £450m in funding, and aims to achieve £3.5bn in savings over the course of this parliament.

“At the same time, departments have moved ahead with transformation programmes,” said the NAO, adding that there are “widespread views across government that GDS has struggled to adapt to its changing role”.

NAO head Amyas Morse is expected to say that “digital transformation has a mixed track record across government”.

“It has not yet provided a level of change that will allow government to further reduce costs while still meeting people’s needs. To achieve value for money and support transformation across government, GDS needs to be clear about its role and strike a balance between robust assurance and a more consultative approach.”

Varying Verify success

As part of its government-as-a-platform (GaaP) programme, GDS also developed Verify, its online identity assurance platform, which is intended to be the standard way of proving people’s identity when accessing public sector services. GDS has set a target of 25 million users by 2020, but uptake has been slow. HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), for instance, is developing its own identity service, based on the Government Gateway.

“Verify has been difficult for some people to use and departments have taken longer and found it more difficult to adopt than expected,” said the NAO press release.

“As a result, GDS now allows departments to offer other options for online access, in parallel, for nine of the 12 services currently using GOV.UK Verify. According to the NAO, this undermines the business case for the Verify programme and makes the process less clear for users.” 

Spending controls and frameworks

One of the more successful GDS projects has been to introduce spending controls on government IT, where departments need GDS approval to spend more than £100m on IT contracts. Over five years, this has reduced spending on IT by £1.3bn, the NAO said.

Other services, including the G-Cloud and Digital Services Framework, have also aimed to help the government engage better with suppliers.

All government digital projects are also supposed to meet the service assessment standards specified by GDS before they can progress to the next stage of development or live service, but this has not always been the case. HMRC, for instance, decided to ignore the assessment standards and go live with its beta version of personal tax accounts despite failing the GDS assessment.

“The combination of strict controls and uncertain requirements, however, has led to confusion about GDS’s role in assuring major programmes,” the NAO press release said. “In addition, GDS has not sustained its framework of standards and guidance.”

New phase

With Kevin Cunnington taking over as director general of GDS last summer, the organisation is said to have “moved into a new phase”. In an interview with Computer Weekly last year, Cunnington said spending controls needed to change.

“In the past, GDS legitimately had to police some things that were going on,” he said. “If you go back to the original spend controls when they were set, permanent secretaries will tell you that it was quite useful having GDS saying no to some of their plans, because their plans weren’t as well formed as they could have been, based on the fact that they didn’t have the experience to put them together.

“But nowadays we are more comfortable that departments have created their own capability. It’s about having a proper grown-up discussion around roadmaps in the future. We’ll get much more comfortable, so the relationship is changing.”

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