Digital: GDS standards ‘left departments unsure of performance requirements’

Written by Richard Johnstone on 30 March 2017 in News

Widespread Whitehall view that GDS is struggling with an expanded role

An auditor review of the Government Digital Service has found that strict controls imposed by the Cabinet Office body left departments unable to understand the requirements for transformation schemes.

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In a report looking at the creation and development of GDS, the National Audit Office said the 2011 founding of the centre of digital expertise in Whitehall had successfully reshaped government’s approach to technology and transformation. There had been a number successes including the GOV.UK website and digital service standards.

Imposition of cost controls by GDS had reduced spending on IT by £1.3bn over five years to April 2016, and the NAO noted these can play an important role in enforcing consistency and ensuring that departments adopt standards.

Leaders in the function were also perceived as having helped break down traditional barriers between IT and other areas of government, the report found, but transformation “has not been straightforward”. Although many government services are now available online, departments and GDS have struggled to manage more complicated programmes and to improve the complex systems and processes that support public services.

In addition, the strict standards “made it difficult for departments to understand assurance requirements”, the report concluded.

“However, it is difficult to understand the status of different forms of guidance, and departments told us it can be hard to anticipate how GDS will interpret their performance against standards,” the report stated. “GDS is now introducing approvals and assurance mechanisms that consider departments’ overall portfolios and reduce burdens from controls.”

After its initial success, GDS has also found it difficult to redefine its role as it has grown, according to auditors.

It had expanded significantly, with its budget rising from £37m in 2012-13 to £150m in 2016-17 a part of a £455m funding pot agreed at the 2015 Spending Review for the four years from April 2016.

GDS has taken the lead in developing the Government Transformation Strategy, but the responsibilities between it, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority and departments were not clearly defined.

GDS is also spending more of its money on developing and running projects such as identity assurance platform GOV.UK Verify, as well as common services for Whitehall.

There is now a widespread view across government that GDS has struggled to adapt to its changing role, and alongside its expanded budget, departments have moved ahead with transformation programmes.

Amyas Morse, the head of the National Audit Office, said it was now vital that GDS strikes “a balance between robust assurance and a more consultative approach”.

“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,” he added.

Responding to the report, a government spokeswoman said the NAO recognised that GDS had successfully reshaped government's approach to technology and transformation.

"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,” she said.

About the author

Richard Johnstone is CSW's deputy editor and tweets as @RichRJohnstone

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