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GDS to handle Govt payments? What could possibly go wrong?

New Cabinet Office Minister lavishes fulsome praise on Maude’s fiasco

Be afraid. The previous government’s “elite digital team” which so brilliantly borked most of Whitehall’s websites, and that failed to meet its own targets, may be put in charge of handling real money: your money.

New Cabinet Office Minister Matthew Hancock hinted at the opportunity at a gentle public grilling today. Although Hancock didn’t mention GDS by name, he told the Institute of Government:

The Government has a multitude of platforms for paying people money. And receiving money. What we don’t have is a platform all across government for receiving and paying money. Departments collect debts, for example.

GDS is keen to expand itself into an IT service provider to Government, under the buzzword “Government as a platform”. But a single payments system would represent a single point of failure. Last month, consultancy BDO warned Ministers of the risk that GDS could replicate past IT failures.

“Those risks are present, urgent and the result of a state-centric philosophy that belongs in the history books,” wrote BDO’s Jack Perschke.

Think tank Policy Exchange, which former Cabinet Office Minister Francis (now Lord) Maude helped found, also warned that GDS would leave Government needing to maintain bespoke components “forever”.

Hancock heaped praise on his own Department’s Government Digital Service today, both for its work in moving Whitehall publishing to the GOV.UK domain – which lost millions of pages and made information harder to find – and its service delivery achievements. GDS had promised to have 25 home-brewed services up and running by April 1, but only managed a handful. As the deadline neared, only nine were fully running, drawing criticism from Labour, after which six more were adjudged (by GDS itself) to be ready the next day. Some were modest, others were scaled back, and the Rural Payments Service has been scrapped entirely after farmers found it unusable.

“GDS has established itself with some very positive results and a track record for delivering much better services,” said Hancock. “We have put in a platform right across Government on which services can be built. We have got the tools in place.”

(We think he meant “tools” in the traditional, rather vernacular sense.)

Hancock said the Cabinet Office intended to achieve cost savings of £15bn to £20bn, but wouldn’t say how much GDS would contribute to the savings. Hancock saw GDS as a “catalyst”.

“Digital is the biggest revolution of our time,” he said.

In reality, departments have been moving more to web services anyway and many regard GDS as a hindrance, rather than a help in getting stuff working. You can learn what GDS' own staff think of GDS here.

It isn’t exactly what its management tell the Minister.

We’ll send him a copy. ®

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