GDS to build GOV.UK app to access hundreds of services

Smartphone platform will form part of wider One Login programme
Crown Copyright/Open Government Licence v3.0

By Sam Trendall

15 Oct 2021

By the end of next year, citizens will be able to use a GOV.UK smartphone app to access hundreds of government services.

Development of the technology, which will be led by the Government Digital Service, forms part of ongoing work on the One Login programme, which aims to introduce a single, unifying procedure to replace an existing patchwork of scores of different systems currently in use across departments and services.

The app will offer citizens a single means of access to government’s services – but the same, unified login process will also be available through mobile and desktop web browsers, the Cabinet Office told PublicTechnology.

The intention is for all government services, across every department, to use the new login platform. Currently, there are 191 different accounts systems in use across central government, featuring 44 different means of signing in.

The previous major attempt to build a government-wide access system – the GOV.UK Verify identity-assurance tool – was dogged by delays and saw limited uptake from both citizens and departments. Of the hundreds of services delivered by central government departments and agencies, only 15 currently use Verify as part of their sign-in process.

GDS chief executive Tom Read recently told the MPs on parliament’s Public Accounts Committee that, in building the new system, the digital agency is consciously working to avoid the mistakes made during the development of Verify. 

“With the Verify programme, the technology approach and the overall design was baked in right at the beginning,” he said. “What wasn’t done is proper, iterative testing with real users to see if that [approach] worked – and we now know that it doesn’t work for around half of the users who use it.”

Read added: “What we are doing instead [for One Login] is working with departments across government – with the frontline of departments – to say: ‘let’s learn more about how your users work, and we will build a solution for that works for that set of those users’. Then we will go to the next set of users to see if that works and, if not, we will need to pivot and will need a slightly different solution.”

Announcing the plans to develop a GOV.UK app, the government echoed the importance of GDS working with agencies to ensure the new system meets their needs.

“GDS is working across all government departments to make sure as many services as possible can be utilised,” the government said. “The app is being developed with data security at its heart, with robust data protection principles in place to make sure users remain in control of their data.”

It added: “Use of the app will be optional, with people still able to access government services in different ways if they prefer.”

Appy returns

The decision to build an app marks something of a divergence from the strategy espoused by GDS in the months and years following its formation in 2011.

The digital unit formerly advised departments and agencies that their time – and money – was better spent on developing web services that worked well on both desktop and mobile platforms.

In a 2013 blog post, GDS co-founder Tom Loosemore said that the organisation had adopted a “by default, no apps approach”, in which departments wishing to create a mobile app for one or more of their services needed first to apply to the Cabinet Office for a special exemption to do so.

“For government services, we believe the benefits of developing and maintaining apps will very rarely justify their costs, especially if the underlying service design is sub-optimal,” he said. “Departments should focus on improving the quality of the core web service.”

An obvious difference between then and now is that the app being developed by GDS is intended to offer a front door to all government services – rather than stand-alone programs being built for individual departments or services.

Plans to develop the app were announced this week by chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Steve Barclay. 

“Now more than ever, it is important that government responds to people’s heightened expectations about the services they use,” he said. “During the pandemic, people have had to interact with public services in a variety of new ways, including the NHS app and the vaccine booking service. People rightly expect government to be data driven and digitally literate, and this will be a priority for me in my new role.”

The appointment of Barclay as the ministerial head at the Cabinet Office is understood to mark the first time in several years that responsibility for GDS and the wider digital government agenda will sit at the top of the department.

In June 2017, oversight was delegated by then Cabinet Office minister Damian Green to Caroline Nokes, a junior minister in the department at the time. Since then, it has remained part of the portfolio of a junior minister, with Nokes followed by Oliver Dowden, Simon Hart, Jeremy Quin, Lord Agnew and, most recently, Julia Lopez as the minister responsible for GDS. Only Dowden spent more than a year in charge of the brief.

But Barclay is understood to have a keen interest in digital government, and the former Treasury minister is likely to take direct responsibility for GDS, its recently created sister agency the Central Digital and Data Office, and the wider government tech brief.

Alongside the announcement of the GOV.UK app, Barclay also revealed the make-up of a newly formed Digital Advisory board which, according to the government, will “give advice to ministers and officials across government and accelerate digital change”.

Appointed to the board are: Zaka Mian, a former group transformation director at Lloyds Banking Group; Monique Shivanandan, chief information security officer at HSBC; Matthew Timms, chief digital and information officer at E.ON; and James Bilefield, a former digital executive who now serves as a board member or advisor for a range of organisations including MoneySupermarket, McKinsey, and Stagecoach.

Sam Trendall is the editor of CSW's sister title PublicTechnology, where a version of this story first appeared.

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