GDS – in search of a role in digital government transformation


GDS made an early impact on the progress of digital government transformation in the UK, but its role looks vague and in need of redefining in 2017, according to the National Audit Office.

GDS government
The essential mantra

Here at diginomica we’ve made no secret of our growing concern about the post-Election role of the Government Digital Service (GDS) following the departure of key figures such as Mike Bracken and Minister for the Cabinet Francis Maude.

While apologists have talked in terms of GDS now being about ‘influence’ rather than ‘enforcement’, we’ve been concerned that the blockers of digital transformation in Whitehall have regrouped and put the brakes on a more radical change agenda, complete with a consequent willingness to get back to doing business with the oligopoly old guard.

It gives no pleasure therefore to read today’s report on government digital transformation from the National Audit Office (NAO) only to find those suspicions largely confirmed, with the auditors talking in terms of GDS finding it difficult to redefine its role and now having a remit with unclear accountability.

It’s a pretty mixed bag when as a critique of GDS progress. There are some clear positives, such as GDS establishment of strong controls over spending and service design, and estimates that controls have reduced spending on IT by £1.3 billion over five years to April 2016. The introduction of frameworks, such as G-Cloud and the Digital Services Framework, to improve contracting with small and medium-sized enterprises also comes in for some praise.

But at the same time, the NAO notes:

The combination of strict controls and uncertainty about guidance has made it difficult for departments to understand assurance requirements. Spending controls can play an important role in enforcing consistency and ensuring that departments adopt standards. However, it is dif cult 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.

As for boosting SME spend, while there is a headline bit of seeming good news, the underlying reality is that the oligopoly is alive and kicking and still sending in large invoices. The NAO observes:

Government data show that up to November 2016, 64% of sales by volume were to SMEs via the G-Cloud framework. While new digital and procurement frameworks targeting SMEs have had some impact, most government procurement with digital and technology suppliers continues to be with large organisations. In 2015-16, 94% of such spending was with large enterprises, a fall of less than one percentage point since 2012-13.

Of the 25 digital exemplars identified by GDS in 2012, only 15 were providing live services by March 2015, with a further five in public trial phase. But crucially, the NAO concludes:

Major transformation programmes have had only mixed success. In a lessons learned exercise in 2015, GDS identified positive net present values for only 12 of the 22 exemplars for which data were available. In nearly two-thirds of the exemplars, GDS found that improvements in online services did not result in existing systems being reconfigured or becoming more efficient.

And the handling of the controverisal Verify digital identity programme comes in for particular criticism:

Verify has been difficult for some people to use, departments have taken longer and found it more dif cult to adopt than expected, and GDS has had to soften its approach to mandatory use. Nine of the 12 services using GOV.UK Verify can now be accessed using both Verify and a department’s chosen way of allowing users to log-in to services. This parallel access undermines the current business case and risks creating confusion for service users.

Where to now?

The NAO’s final conclusion makes for stark reading. While acknowledging that GDS made an early impact across government and still idenitifying a role for it, the report argues:

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. GDS has also struggled to demonstrate the value of its own agship initiatives such as Verify, or to set out clear priorities between departmental and cross-government objectives.

GDS’s renewed approach 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. 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.

The NAO does detect willingness to change on the part of GDS, but it’s too early to determine how effective this will be :

It aims to take a more exible approach to supporting transformation given the different challenges and levels of readiness in departments. GDS has launched its aim to ‘support, enable and assure’ transformation via online public communications.

GDS’s new approach is still emerging. It is not yet clear how GDS will prioritise its activities over the next few years, or how it will develop a plan to support its new approach. GDS told us that, in January 2017, it started to work with digital leaders across government to understand the current position and where it needs to get to by 2020. At the time of our assessment, there were no outputs from this process available for review.

The NAO makes four recommendations to improve the current situation:

  1. Roles, responsibilities and plans for delivering the new transformation strategy need to be more clearly defined between GDS, departments and other parts of the centre of government.
  2. GDS needs to 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.
  3. GDS needs to work with departments to develop more detailed technical standards, in particular relating to maintaining or migrating existing systems.
  4. GDS should ensure consistent monitoring and robust assurance of performance and spending, tracking performance against clear technical and programme measures, working with the centre of government to establish proportionate but robust approvals and controls over spending.

My take

I suppose we could be accused of confirmation bias here, but the NAO has pretty much summed up the growing concerns diginomica has had about the changing role of GDS.

Look back to the early days and what’s striking are the forceful personalities who pushed through the change agenda – Chris Chant and Denise McDonagh at G-Cloud, Mike Bracken at GDS, Stephen Kelly as the government Chief Operating Officer, Liam Maxwell as Chief Technology Officer.

And of course, the ‘not going anywhere’ Francis Maude in the Cabinet Office hot seat, providing the political will to counter any administrative won’t from Sir Humphrey.

Flash forward to today and only Maxwell is still in situ, now as National Technology Adviser. The centralised digital responsibilities of Maude are dispersed across at least three politicians. The big oligopoly contracts that were never going to be extended are being extended one-by-one. And GDS’s role is vague and, I would argue, undermined by the current political and civil service establishment. Derek’s searing J’accuse John Manzoni remains powerful reading as do the tellingly ‘what he’s not saying’ comments of Lord Maude.

And now comes Brexit and all our assumptions about digital transformation are up in the air. As Claire Moriarty, Permanent Secretary at Defra – which had a notorious culture clash with GDS over Rural Payments, resulting in a damning critique from the Public Accounts Committee  – put it recently:

Clearly life changed for us on the 24th June. We thought we were busy before that, but from the 24th of June we have had one huge priority which sits alongside what we were doing already. The things that have come along have not displaced things that the government was doing already, but they do mean that we have had to work out the priorities.

Digital government in the UK has never been more in need of the reformative zeal of the early GDS.

Sadly I fear that the comfort blanket of the oligoply will be pulled tighter and tighter around Whitehall’s Brexit-burdened shoulders. It’s essential that GDS gets radical and comes up with a clearly-defined role for itself.

Image credit - GDS