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Think tank criticises 'unclear' role of GDS



The time is right to transform Whitehall - but leadership is lacking, says Institute for Government

We’ve had our day out in the digital theme park, now let’s get back to work.

That’s the gist of a timely and sometimes provocative report on "making a success on digital government" published by the Institute for Government today.

The influential think tank revives the concept of  digital transformation, saying it could save central government departments between £1.3 and £2 billion by 2020. But it says this is unlikely to happen, due to a gap in leadership. 

“Taking digital government to the next level will require sustained attention," it says. "This is not currently in evidence.”

It adds: “Government is not a start-up. To make the most of what digital has to offer, it must contend with deep legacies - technological, organisational and cultural - which run counter to the collaborative and iterative processes that digital working demands.”

High ambitions

This requires a very different culture to the Government Digital Service's (GDS) original “strategy is delivery” philosophy, of concentrating on easy-win web front ends without too much thinking about what goes on behind the scenes. “GDS needs to re-equip itself to support a government that now has rapidly developing digital ability, and high ambitions for change.”

In many ways the call is a throwback to the "transformational government" era of the early 2000s, when the UK Online portal promised to arrange transactions by “life event” rather than organisational boundary. The report even opens with the "bureaucratic odyssey" faced by new parents as they struggle with government and NHS boundaries to register a birth. However, there is little detail about how the problem could be resolved - perhaps because doing so might revive the need for a central identity register. 

Local government scarcely gets a mention. The report is based on an odd selection of case studies, including Parliament, and perhaps the betting is that politicians will at least read that part.

Of the others, only two, HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority (DVLA), have major citizen-facing functions. The others are the UK Trade & Investment and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs. 

Efficiency savings

HMRC and DVLA are held up as exemplars for attempting transformational change on the scale of what is needed; for example HMRC’s efficiency savings of £420 million between 2013-16. However, the report notes that “efficiency savings are not the same as spending reductions”.

Overall, any transformation programme faces five challenges:

  • Moving from small changes to transformation.
  • Bringing policy and implementation together.
  • Tackling IT legacies.
  • Adapting project governance to a more agile approach.
  • Building and retaining a digitally capable workforce.

For the Institute for Government, year zero seems to be the creation of the GDS in 2010. Yet the Cabinet Office's Transformational Government strategy was published in 2005. It led to the creation a new fast stream for attracting IT skills to the civil service, a need the institute says is still pressing.  

Under new management

Getting transformation right this time round will need leadership from the top, the institute says.  “At present, that leadership is not in place. GDS is under new management and it will take time to solidify their approach to cross-government digital change.

"Government itself is under new management, with a new set of ministers (including at the Cabinet Office) busy getting to grips with their new policy agendas. Everyone - politicians and officials - is distracted by the challenge of preparing for Brexit.

“We have reached a tipping point. If the leadership does not emerge to drive the changes, there is a risk that digital teams will continue to be viewed as website designers, brought in only at the very end of policy design processes.

"There is a risk that new governance models will not be generated, leading to the rejection or mishandling of agile project management. There is a risk that insufficient investment will be made in the capabilities needed to bring new services, leading to poor quality; or to manage the newly in-house IT infrastructure, leading to failure."

“Taking digital government to the next level will require sustained attention. This is not currently in evidence.” 

Image by Clay Gilliland, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons




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