All change for digital government?

This year has seen the biggest changes to Whitehall’s technology leadership in a decade. Sam Trendall runs through what’s new
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By Sam Trendall

15 Jun 2021

This year has seen perhaps the biggest shake-up in the Whitehall digital scene since the creation of the Government Digital Service 10 years ago.

GDS has itself appointed a new chief executive, with former Ministry of Justice digital chief Tom Read taking the reins in February. Government’s digital leadership has been further augmented by the respective appointments of Joanna Davinson and Paul Wilmott as executive director and chair of the newly created Central Digital and Data Office.

The CDDO sits alongside GDS in the Cabinet Office, with the former assuming leadership of the digital, data and technology function across the civil service. Its broad remit is to set and implement overall strategy across departments, while GDS focuses on developing digital platforms that can be used throughout government.

In recent weeks, details have gradually emerged about how the two agencies will work together – and in parallel – and how the revamp will affect those working in digital government.


Staffing and responsibilities

In the past two months, scores of staff from GDS have moved over to CDDO, as the newly created entity has taken on a range of standards and controls functions that were previously the remit of the digital agency.

CDDO now holds responsibility for managing and implementing all digital, data and technology strategy and standards throughout government. This includes the Service Standard – a set of 14 rules against which services are assessed at every stage of their development. The body also oversees open standards and government’s Technology Code of Practice.

All of which were previously the responsibility of GDS – as was the imposition of spending controls for departmental investment in digital services and technology. This too, along with all other “cross-government DDaT performance and assurance”, has been moved to CDDO. Responsibility for accessibility work is also understood to have moved to the new entity, as has the management of the public sector domain.

The decision to move all these functions has seen a large number of staff move from GDS to CDDO. Those that have made the switch include holders of a wide range of job titles such as technology adviser, policy and engagement lead, and user researchers and designers in the areas of standards, assurance, and accessibility. It is understood the number of employees moved between the two organisations is likely to be in the region of at least 100.

The two entities do, at least, share an office, with CDDO’s listed HQ being the Whitechapel Building in east London, which has housed GDS since 2016.


GOV.UK and services

GDS’s biggest project is the ongoing work to develop GOV.UK accounts, which will provide a government-wide login system to replace an existing patchwork of about 100 separate means of logging in to access various services across departments.

One of the tools being phased out is GOV.UK Verify, public funding for which was scheduled to cease in March 2020. From that point onwards, responsibility for supporting its ongoing operation and development had been due to be handed over to the platform’s commercial identity-provider partners.

However, as the majority of those partners began to sever their ties with the platform – and with huge demands being placed on Verify by the surge in Universal Credit applications prompted by the coronavirus crisis – the government stepped in to continue funding the product until at least September 2021.

This funding – equating to £11m a year – will now continue even further, until April 2023, while work on the new accounts system takes place.

That project, meanwhile, received £21m in the November spending round.

According to civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm: “[This will] enable GDS to build a pilot system as the first stage of an ambitious single sign-on and digital identity assurance system for the whole of government, alongside £11m to continue to run Verify during 2021-22 to minimise the risk of disruption to users and connected services as we transition on to the future system.”

Since launching five years ago, Verify has had tepid uptake across government, with only about 20 services making use of the platform. The GOV.UK accounts system “is being built with the lessons of Verify front and centre”, Chisholm said.

“It is being co-designed and built in close collaboration with key departments, and with robust oversight from the IPA [Infrastructure and Projects Authority] and a dedicated ministerial group, jointly chaired by the chief secretary to the Treasury [Steve Barclay] and minister Julia Lopez, Cabinet Office parliamentary under-secretary,” he added.


Tech and data infrastructure

Addressing the significant challenges created for government by outdated IT is “a core reason the Central Digital and Data Office has been established” and will be one of the organisation’s major early objectives, according to Cabinet Office minister Julia Lopez.

In a speech given to the Digital Government Conference last month, Lopez described legacy IT as “the elephant in the room” of the transformation agenda.

Before the pandemic, GDS led work to conduct a government-wide audit of legacy technology across departments. The commonly used government definition of legacy is any hardware, software or business process which meets one or more of the following criteria: being considered an end-of-life product; being no longer supported by the supplier; being impossible to update; being considered to be above what is considered an acceptable risk threshold; and being no longer cost effective.

The impact of such ageing systems has been starkly demonstrated by the coronavirus crisis, with the need to maintain legacy IT systems having added more than £50m to HM Revenue and Customs’ costs last year – representing 80% of the additional expense the department incurred as a result of Covid. The tax agency was the chief beneficiary of four departments that will receive a cumulative £600m in funding to tackle legacy tech set out in the November spending round. In addition to £268m for HMRC, the Home Office received £232m, the Department for Education £64m, and the Ministry of Justice £40m.

Lopez said that this cash will allow departments to address “critical risks”, but added that “this is only one step” on a much longer journey towards solving the problems posed by legacy tech.

“Addressing legacy remains a key focus,” she added. “Our next phase of work will build on what we have done so far, further identifying legacy assets and agreeing prioritisation and funding while working with departments to develop roadmaps for addressing risks. Removing legacy IT also achieves value for money by removing excessive costs to support out-of-date technology.”

This phase will be led by the CDDO.

Improving government’s use of data will be another of the new organisation’s major initial objectives.

“We need to tackle the issues that are stopping us from using data on tap,” Lopez said. “Data is too often stuck in silos within departments and agencies – there are also other legislative, technical and security blockers which stop us from sharing data.”

She added: “Through the CDDO, we intend to tackle this long-standing issue head on. We will do this by establishing a common data model for government with core data standards, reference data and policies. This will enable easier and ethical sharing of data. We are also committed to transforming the way data is collected, managed and used across government. We intend to create a joined-up and interoperable data infrastructure.”

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