NAO report on Government Digital Service points to mixed track record and a need for more consistency in guidance and technical standards
The Government Digital Service (GDS) has pulled off some achievements in reshaping the approach to technology and transformation, but not always worked effectively with government departments and needs to redefine its role in key areas, according to a new report from the National Audit Office (NOA).
Titled Digital Transformation in Government, it makes clear that GDS does have a clear function and is learning from its experiences since it was established in 2011. But it has struggled to demonstrate the value of flagship initiatives – notably the GOV.UK Verify programme for identity assurance – or to set out key priorities.
Head of the NAO Amyas Morse (pictured) said: “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.”
The verdict is likely to place some pressure on the organisation, which benefited from the provision of £450 million to fund its work over five years in the Spending Review of November 2015; but with a sense that it still has plenty of time to consolidate its position into the 2020s.
Among the more positive points in the report are the achievements of GDS in laying the ground for savings in ICT procurement in central government. Its introduction of procurement frameworks such as G-Cloud and the Digital Services Framework, along with its campaign for departments to reduce the reliance on long term contracts for ICT provision, have yielded significant results. GDS has reported savings of £1.3 billion from the spending controls it established in 2011.
It has also encouraged the use of agile methods in project development, provided more scope for small and medium enterprises to win government business, and shown that the public sector could quickly introduce digital service standards.
The rationalisation of central government websites under the GOV.UK banner has also contributed to a more streamlined approach.
But there have been shortcomings. The report points out that from 25 online services that GDS identified as exemplars in 2012, only 12 had shown positive net present values by 2015, and that for two-thirds they had not resulted in existing systems being reconfigured or becoming more efficient.
Similarly, while SMEs are now much more prominent in government procurement frameworks, accounting for 64% of the sales through G-Cloud by November 2016, large companies still accounted for 94% of spending by 2015-16, just 1% lower than in 2012-13.
The NOA expresses strong reservations over the progress of GOV.UK Verify, the most advanced of the Government as a Platform programme. Almost a year after it went live it is available in just 12 government services, but the report says it has been difficult for some people to use, and that some of the organisations are continuing to allow users to log-in through their own mechanisms. This is undermining the business case for Verify and creating some confusion for service users.
On a broad front, feedback from other parts of Whitehall suggested that GDS has struggled to adapt to a changing role, and the NAO points out that its advisory board identified a need for a high level vision in July of last year.
Another criticism is that the organisation has not sustained its framework of standards and guidance, with some being removed and web links broken, and that they often leave scope for interpretation and disagreement. Departments have complained that it is sometimes difficult to understand the status of different forms of guidance.
The report’s recommendations are that:
- There should be more clarity around the roles of GDS, departments and other parts of government in pushing forward transformation.
- GDS should work closely with the rest of government to establish common principles for balancing departmental and cross-government priorities.
- It should improve the clarity, relevance and consistency of its guidance and technical standards.
- It should ensure consistent monitoring and robust assurance of performance and spending.
The report also points out that GDS is now taking a more collaborative and flexible approach in supporting departments, taking account of their circumstances and the importance of managing existing systems. It is now working in the Transformation Peer Group to share good practice between departments, although its role is not yet fully clear.
This is significant given the reports of tensions between departmental teams and GDS between 2011-15 when it was led by Mike Bracken with the high profile support of then Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude.
Responding to the report, a Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "This report recognises that the Government Digital Service has successfully reshaped government's approach to technology and transformation. It identifies some key achievements - including £1.3 billion 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."