Digital government inquiry concludes ‘momentum has been lost and GDS lost its way’

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez July 9, 2019
The Science and Technology Committee has released the findings of its inquiry into the progress of digital government in the UK - making a number of recommendations to improve the status quo.


In what will come as a surprise to very few people, the findings of the Science and Technology Committee inquiry into ‘digital government’ has found that momentum has been lost and that GDS has lost its way.

MPs on the Committee have made a number of recommendations that they believe could help rectify the situation, including the appointment of ministerial digital champions within each department and an audit of all legacy systems across government be carried out.

We at diginomica/government have been stating for months - if not years - that those spearheading the digital government agenda across Whitehall have been failing in their duties to drive further change, in turn missing out on huge opportunities to not only create cost savings, but to also improve the relationship between the citizen and the state. And, of course, there has been the Brexit distraction.

‘Digital government’ as a concept in Whitehall truly began back in 2010, following the creation of the Government Digital Service and the ‘digital by default’ agenda. Leaders such as Mike Bracken and Tom Loosemore championed the idea that government services should be easy to use, focused on user need and make full use of the capabilities of the internet.

The idea of a ‘platform government’ was developed, whereby departments would use common components and share data to deliver services, rather than trying to build everything in siloes and outsourcing all skills and IP to the big SIs.

A huge upskilling agenda occurred and there is now a strong digital, data and technology capability across government (well, stronger than there was previously).

However, after Bracken & Co. left GDS and then Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude departed, whom had been a huge supporter of the agenda, things began to flail.

We have been fairly critical of current director general of GDS, Kevin Cunnington, for which you can read background on here. However, Cunnington recently announced his departure and that there will be a full recruitment process for his replacement.

The report’s findings and recommendations

As noted above, the key message from the report is that momentum has been lost, there is little political leadership for the agenda and that actions should be taken to address legacy systems. MPs on the Committee have made a number of recommendations to help bring back some drive to digital change across Whitehall. These include:

  • The government define “digital” as transforming how services are delivered so that the relationship between the citizen and the state is enhanced. Not only this, departments should be required to set out metrics for success and report against these metrics on an annual basis.

  • Recognising the potential of single unique identifiers for citizens and how they use services, the government should facilitate a national debate on the topic, including a focus on the right of the citizen to know exactly what the government is doing with their data.

  • DCMS should conduct an audit of data-sharing amongst government departments to see where best practice is taking place and identify which departments are particularly siloed.

  • The Committee notes that it is ‘disappointing’ that the government has not appointed a Chief Data Officer, having committed to doing so in 2017. It should appoint one by the end of 2019.

  • The government should introduce a ministerial digital champion in every department by the end of 2019, who will be responsible for using innovation and digitisation to transform the way their department operates.

  • The government needs to clarify GDS’s role and its relationships with other departments, as well as determining with GDS whether there are any powers it needs to compel departments to take particular action.

  • DCMS is now in charge of data policy for government, after it was taken out of GDS’s remit. The Committee states that it is too early to tell if this is a good move and has urged the government to keep under review whether DCMS should be the lead department.

  • GDS should conduct an audit of all legacy systems across government including where they are based, what actions to take, the expected cost of such action and the resulting timescales. GDS’s framework of retain (do nothing), retire (drop), re-host (lift and shift), repurchase (shop and drop), re-platform (life and shape) should be used to determine what actions to take with each legacy system. This audit should be completed no later than December 2020.

  • The government should publish a strategy by mid-2020 covering how it intends to make digital skills sustainable.

  • The Crown Commercial Service should produce a consultation immediately on the accessibility of the current Government technology procurement framework, asking for input from start-ups and SMEs on how accessible the current framework is.

Commenting on the release of the report, Rt Hon Norman Lamb MP, Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, said:

The potential that digital Government can bring is huge: transforming the relationship between the citizen and the State, saving money and making public services more efficient and agile. However, it is clear that the current digital service offered by the Government has lost momentum and is not transforming the citizen-State relationship as it could.

Single unique identifiers can transform the efficiency and transparency of Government services. The Government should ensure there is a national debate on single unique identifiers for citizens to use when accessing public services along with the right of the citizen to know exactly what the Government is doing with their data. In the UK, we have no idea when and how Government departments are accessing and using our data. We could learn from the very different relationship between citizen and the state in Estonia.

As well as a lack of leadership, we also heard of skill shortages and legacy systems, which increase the risk of cyber security attacks. But addressing these challenges requires money and the Government must be willing to invest to save in the future.

The Government must re-address its approach to digitisation quickly if it wants to retain public trust and its envied position on the world stage.

My take

Many of the recommendations in this report are sensible and things we’ve been arguing for, for a while. Political leadership. Clear and measurable objectives. Central controls. A clearer understanding of data use in Whitehall. However, as the Committee notes, there is just no momentum behind any of this. It all feels a bit dead in the water. Hopefully this report will reignite some of the earlier ambitions and that the government doesn’t sleep on what is a huge opportunity.


Image credit - Image sourced via GDS

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