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GDS digital transformation delivers mixed results, says NAO

National Audit Office report examines Verify uptake, GDS strategy changes, spending controls and collaboration with departments

The Government Digital Service (GDS) must be clear about its role if it is to succeed in helping the government adopt digital services, says the National Audit Office (NAO).

In a report, Digital transformation in government, published today (30 March), the NAO calls on GDS to work with the rest of government to “establish common principles for balancing departmental and cross-government priorities”.

“GDS should develop a more systematic analysis of what needs to be done centrally rather than by departments, in particular in strengthening government’s approach to the effective use and management of data,” the report said. 

The organisation has previously been criticised over its relations with government departments. The report said GDS’s “renewed approach”, under the leadership of director general Kevin Cunnington, “aims to address many of these concerns as it expands and develops into a more established part of government”. 

“But there continues to be a risk that GDS is trying to cover too broad a remit with unclear accountabilities,” the NAO said. “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.”

In the 2015 Autumn Statement, GDS received a budget of £450m for the next four years – the largest sum the organisation has received since its creation. In return, GDS is expected to save £3.5bn over the course of this parliament, including £1.3bn in savings from its government-as-a-platform (GaaP) programme.

Low uptake of Verify 

The programme includes common platforms such as Notify, Pay and Verify.  In its report, the NAO said the uptake of identity assurance platform Verify, in particular, had been “undermined by its performance and GDS has lost focus on the longer-term strategic case for the programme”. 

“The current business case is based on reducing duplication or simplifying the way new services are developed,” the report said. “But Verify has been difficult for some people to use, departments have taken longer and found it more difficult to adopt than expected, and GDS has had to soften its approach to mandatory use.”

The government’s transformation strategy, published earlier this year, set out plans to reach 25 million Verify users by April 2020.

But so far, GDS has failed to achieve the number of users set out in its business case, having reached only 1.1 million users by February this year, instead of the originally forecast 4.4 million by the end of March.

“Verify has not achieved the volume of users in the central forecast of the business cases, in part due to slower development of digital services across government, and fewer-than-expected services being ready to adopt Verify as the primary access route,” the report said.

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Rumours have been rife that HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), in particular, has been reluctant to use the platform, with sources suggesting the department had no confidence in the system. In fact, HMRC is developing its own identity service, based on the Government Gateway. 

“Reduced take-up means that Verify will need to be centrally funded for longer, and reduces the incentive for the identity providers to lower their prices over time,” the NAO said. “It is not clear how or when GDS will determine whether continuing with Verify will achieve projected benefits.

“Our review shows that GDS could have done more to understand the existing landscape of department services to support their early work on identity assurance for individuals. 

“For example, there was no full analysis of how existing services identified customers or analysis of the way in which customer data is held in existing services or how this might affect the user journey from Verify to completion of the service transaction. Such analysis may have provided more understanding about likely rate of take-up and the type of incentives required for departments to use Verify.”

The NAO also recommends that GDS reviews its development of “central infrastructure” such as Verify, to show that it actually meets “a proven need”. 

Spending controls 

Part of GDS’s remit has been to introduce spending controls on government IT projects, which has reduced IT spending across government by £1.3bn in the past five years. However, the NAO report said GDS had failed to sustain “its framework of standards and guidance,” with overlapping information and being too broad, “leaving scope for interpretation and disagreement”. 

“The combination of strict controls and uncertainty about guidance has made it difficult for departments to understand assurance requirements,” the report said.

“Spending controls can play an important role in enforcing consistency and ensuring that departments adopt standards. However, it is difficult to understand the status of different forms of guidance, and departments told us it can be hard to anticipate how GDS will interpret their performance against standards.” 

The NAO added that GDS was now introducing “approvals and assurance mechanisms that that consider departments’ overall portfolios and reduce burdens from controls”. 

With the new transformation strategy and Cunnington coming in as the new head of GDS, the organisation is going through a transformation itself to establish its new role. The NAO said GDS’s new approach meant “roles, responsibilities and plans” for putting the strategy into action were “more clearly defined”. 

Last autumn, GDS took over responsibility for the DWP Digital Academy, which aims to spread digital skills and educate non-digital workers about what digital transformation means.  

“GDS is now adopting a more collaborative and flexible approach to supporting departments,” the report said. “GDS will base its approach on individual departments’ circumstances and take account of the importance of managing existing systems.”

Commenting on the report, a government spokesperson said the report "recognises that GDS has successfully reshaped government's approach to technology and transformation".

"It identifies some key achievements - including £1.3bn in savings through our IT spending controls process. 

"Our recently published Government Transformation Strategy sets out our approach to transform government even further, delivering better public services for the citizen while saving money for the taxpayer."

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