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Britain’s Government Digital Service sets out new three year strategy

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez May 24, 2021
The Government Digital Service (GDS) has said that it is no longer in start-up mode and has cited what it won’t be focusing on.

Image of post-it notes with tasks written on them at GDS
(Image sourced via GDS website)

Britain's recently appointed CEO of the Government Digital Service (GDS) has unveiled the central Whitehall organization's latest strategy, covering the period 2021 to 2024. Tom Read believes that given GDS's position at the center of government, it is still perfectly positioned to look at the work of digital teams across government to identify where there are common needs for products, platforms and services. 

GDS was launched back in 2010, following Martha Lane Fox's report into digital government and for the past decade has focused on "fixing publishing, digitizing high-volume transactional services, and building ‘wholesale' technology platforms'. 

Arguably its biggest success to date has been the creation of GOV.UK, which saw more than 2,000 government websites migrated to a single publishing platform. However, there have been plenty of missteps and controversies too, including the multi-million pound failure of Verify - the government's single identity assurance platform. 

GDS has suffered at the hands of political wrangling in recent years and its reputation has gone through peaks and troughs, as a number of leaders have come and gone. However, Read has extensive experience in Whitehall and has made a promising start at the organization. 

It's also worth stating that when GDS started it benefited from being a disruptor and a lot of the criticism levelled at it in recent years could be attributed to it simply ‘maturing'. In Read's blog post he notes that GDS can't do everything and says: 

It is also important to recognise that GDS is no longer in start-up mode. Of our circa £90 million budget this year and with more than 800 people, around 60% are needed to support our existing platforms, services and content. This includes ensuring GOV.UK, which is a vital resource for millions of citizens, is available, reliable and has up to date information.

We therefore have to be selective about where we focus our people, skills and money to make the most difference to the most users of government services.

The three main categories of focus for GDS over the next few years are: 

  • Services that hide the complexity of government structures from the end user

  • Services that can only be delivered by the center

  • Services that should be built once and reused widely

With these in mind, Read outlines five core missions for GDS up until 2024, with the overarching aim to build a "simple, joined up and personalized experience of government for everyone". 

Mission 1 - GOV.UK as the single and trusted online destination for government information and services

Read says that GOV.UK will be at the heart of everything GDS does over the next three years. 

This means: continuing invest and develop content teams; ensuring the underlying technology platforms are in support, highly available and secure, iterating the design and operation of key features; assessing out how to reach users where they are, rather than where suits government; making sure publishing tools provided to civil servants are simple and clear to use. 

Mission 2 - Joined up services that solve whole problems and span multiple departments

This mission is of particular interest, as it goes to the heart of how government operates (traditionally in silos, requiring users to do the heavy lifting to navigate services). 

To overcome this, GDS will: build GOV.UK account functionality; create a single sign-on for all services that need it; consider what a personalized view of GOV.UK content based on specific user needs looks like; map and connect data around individuals and agree sharing arrangements with departments; build a central interact to manage and update the information that government holds on you; develop a series of ‘whole services' for users from the center of government. 

Mission 3 - A simple digital identity solution that works for everyone

As noted above, the previous attempt at this (Verify) will ultimately be deemed a failure over the long term. However, GDS is hoping that it can learn from its mistakes and create a new way for users to sign-on to services from any department and confirm their identity. 

GDS has said that the new solution will: be built in partnership with other government departments; need to work for everyone in the country; be designed with simplicity in mind; and give users full control over their data. 

Mission 4 - Common tools and expert services

GDS wants to "tackle the long tail of PDF forms and other difficult to navigate services", with the aim of making it "almost effortless for departments and agencies to digitize their services". 

There's a lot to this mission and some of it involves building a set of components and making them available to all of government (address pickers, company look-ups etc), as well as supporting and enhancing existing services, such as GOV.UK Pay and Notify. 

GDS also wants to develop a team of expert practitioners who can go out and help teams in other parts of government to digitize their services using Government-as-a-Platform products. 

Mission 5 - Joined-up data across departments

None of the above will be possible without a coherent and effective data strategy. This means being able to understand how people interact with government online and being able to use data about people and government to provide the level of service that they expect. This will be permissions-based and delivered in partnership with the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO). 

GDS will explore an events brokerage services that allows departments to share information about users that would be useful for other parts of government to know and creating an exchange mechanism between the citizen and the state to eventually enable a ‘tell government once' principle. 

Focus is important

Read also outlined how GDS plans to deliver on the organization's latest strategy, reiterating much of what we have come to associate with GDS in the past. For example, there will continue to be a relentless focus on user needs, it will work in partnership with other parts of government, and will continue to open source code. We are also pleased to see that GDS makes mention of its commitment to building diverse teams that are reflective of the society we live in. 

However, what's also interesting is that Read took the time to highlight what GDS won't be focusing on too. These areas include: 

  • Government digital and technology strategy and policy 

  • Spend controls

  • Running another big exemplar programme of individual transactional services

  • Legacy technology and cyber risk

  • Shared services and ERP solutions

  • End-user technology (laptops, productivity tools, etc)

My take

In the past GDS has led with a more stick than carrot approach. It seems that the tide has officially turned on that. GDS appears to be fully prioritizing government-as-a-platform ambitions, building the components to make effective digital government possible, and then partnering with departments to guide them to the ‘oasis'. Key to all of this will be the data work, which has stalled time and time again over the years - partly because it's hard, partly because people are guarding their ‘kingdoms'. We will be watching with close interest as this progresses. 

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