Don't believe the hype: UK's £455m Government Digital Service lacks a clear role – fresh audit

Got nine-figure problems but a strategy ain't one

The track record of the UK's Government Digital Service has come under fire by the National Audit Office, which today said it has “unclear accountabilities".

Many are bound to read the watchdog's latest report through the prism of their own confirmation bias.

Those who believe that everything was great until former head Mike Bracken left in 2015, will say it is proof the body has recently lost its way without the original team’s stewardship. Meanwhile, others will see it as evidence as to why the new chief exec Kevin Cunnington was unceremoniously parachuted in last year.

(As an aside, Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer - the brother of Cordelia Gummer AKA 'mad cow girl' - bizarrely described Cunnington recently as a 'digital Che Guevara'.)

However, what is clear from Thursday's audit report is that GDS has a budget of £455m and no real plan to spend it. What’s more, its deliverables to date present an extremely mixed picture. The NAO said that GDS has "found it difficult to redefine its role as it has grown."

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: “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.

“To achieve value for money and support transformation across government, GDS needs to be clear about its role and strike a balance between robust assurance and a more consultative approach.”

Exemplars of what?

In 2011, the Coalition Government launched its Government ICT Strategy and set up GDS as a centre of digital expertise within the Cabinet Office.

In 2012, it identified 25 services across government for end-to-end service redesign that aimed to show how new approaches could make it easier for people to access services online and help remove unnecessary costs. But as transformation programmes they have had “only mixed success”, with less than half having delivered measurable value.

By March 2015, 15 of the exemplars were providing live online services and a further five were available to the public in trial form. In a lessons learned exercise in 2015, GDS identified positive net present values for only 12 of the 22 programmes for which data were available.

That is in contrast to the claimed success of the exemplars, which the department described in 2015 as a “huge achievement” that it had done “by putting the user needs first”. It is also telling that the lessons learned exemplars review was never made publicly available - something that would have been an instructive exercise in transparency.

On the plus side, the NAO said the spending controls whereby anything over £100,000 has to be approved by the centre have saved government £1.3bn over five years to April 2016.

Although it said “the combination of strict controls and uncertain requirements … has led to confusion about GDS's role in assuring major programmes.” The NAO’s analysis found that requests for approval for amounts of up to £1m accounted for 47 per cent of the time GDS staff spent on spending controls but only 1 per cent of savings in 2015-16.

Of all the exemplars, the most notorious was the fiasco surrounding the Rural Payments Agency’s £215m IT project cock-up.

“We identified conflicting objectives between the main stakeholders in delivering the rural payments digital exemplar,” said the NAO. “To differing degrees, many of the departments we interviewed raised similar concerns about GDS’s support for exemplars.

Cunnington said in an interview with Public Technology that those controls are being abandoned in favour of a “less adversarial” approach with departments. But that also raises the question as to what the future savings attributed to GDS will be – given the spend controls have been the main area of cost savings for the body.

In addition, the body has not sustained its framework of standards and guidance. The NAO found instances of overlapping guidance, for example blogs as well as service manuals being used. In some cases, guidance had been removed and web links broken.

Failure to Verify

Perhaps of most significance is the flop of its online identity programme Verify. The report said GDS has “lost focus on the longer term strategic case for the programme”, it has been difficult for some people to use and departments have taken longer and found it more difficult to adopt than expected.

As a result, GDS now allows departments to offer other options for online access, in parallel, for nine of the 12 services currently using GOV.UK Verify. According to the NAO, this undermines the business case for the Verify programme and makes the process less clear for users.

One high-profile example of departments shunning the programme is that of HMRC choosing to to develop its alternative to Verify for self-assessment tax users.

But if departments aren't using Verify, that raises the question as to the business case for GDs. Most of its funding is understood to be for Verify and its ‘Government as a Platform’ programmes. According to the NAO, 57 per cent of GDS budget over the next four years allocated to developing platforms. So if no one is using them, what GDS there for?

In what might be read as a defensive statement, Cunnington recently told Government Computing the body has “very concrete plans for Verify”, which the department hopes will have 25 million users by 2020. But of course wanting something to happen doesn't mean it actually will.

One source said: “If you know enough about NAO’s house style, I read this as a pretty damning report.  The TL;DR is that they have no plan for spending their budget, Verify is in disarray and there’s no sign of anything changing.” He went on to question whether it was time to shut GDS down.

But another said: “There is a role for the centre, with strong controls, standards and architectural expertise- mapping and helping get away from legacy to a data driven Whitehall and looking across Government as a whole. But that's not about building slicker web sites for existing broken silos, policies, services and organisations.

Perhaps the reading of the report will depend on how much of a glass half-full, or glass half-empty approach one wishes to take.

But even the most optimistic will surely find it hard to conclude from this report that the project of government digital transformation has so far come anywhere close to living up to the hype. ®

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