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MPs call for shake-up in digital government

10/07/19

Mark Say Managing Editor

A committee of MPs has said the Government Digital Service (GDS) has lost its way and called for a shake-up in the approach to digitising central government services.

Houses of Parliament

The House of Commons and Science and Technology Committee has criticised the state of play in its Digital Government report, saying the loss of momentum was a recurrent theme in the evidence it took for its inquiry.

The report says there has been a loss of momentum in digital government since Sir Francis Maude stepped down as Cabinet Office Minister in 2015.

In a thinly veiled criticism of his successors and Kevin Cunnington, director general of GDS for most of the time since, it says political leadership has been lacking, the role of the organisation has become increasingly unclear and it has lacked authority to encourage change in other departments.

This reflects a range of statements from third parties included in the report, and the committee’s own comments that some of the stated aims of GDS had been fulfilled before or soon after its formation in 2011.

Huge potential

Chair of the committee Norman Lamb MP highlighted the issue in his comments on the report.

“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,” he said.

“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.”

As a response, the report says that GDS should focus on devising and enforcing minimum standards across Government digital services, and provide advice to departments when needed. This would, however, need the Government to determine whether GDS needs powers to compel departments to take particular steps.

In addition, the Government should provide extra weight to the movement by introducing a digital champion in every department by the end of this year.

Identifier issue

There are few direct references to the GOV.UK Verify platform – the take-up of which has been disappointing throughout the public sector – but the report emphasises the potential of an alternative approach in the form of single unique identifiers

It points to the case of the electronic ID card used in Estonia as a way of giving people quick and secure access to services. While acknowledging the hostile reaction to previous Government’s plan for a national identity card and the concerns about privacy, says there should be a national debate on the use of identifiers, qualified by people having the right to know what the Government is doing with their data.

Lamb commented: “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.”

Legacy problems

The report also highlights the problems in moving away from legacy IT systems, notably the costs, but says the option of retaining them should not be used widely, partly because there will be a growing shortage of skills to support them.

It recommends that GDS conducts an audit of all legacy systems taking in where they are based, what actions to take, the expected cost and resulting timescales.  

The report makes other recommendations, including:

  • the Government should keep under review whether the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) should continue to oversee open data, data ethics, governance and sharing;

  • but DCMS should conduct an audit of data sharing between departments to see where best practice is taking place and where data is particularly siloed;

  • there should be a minister for cyber security in line with the recommendation of the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy;

  • the Government should publish a strategy for building digital skills by mid 2020;

  • the Government should appoint a chief data officer by the end of this year;

  • the Crown Commercial Service should consult on the accessibility to SMEs of existing procurement frameworks;

  • and there should be an increase in funding through the GovTech Catalyst.

Lamb summed up: “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.”

 

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