Failure to tackle mountains of legacy tech, a lack of leadership and woolly definitions of digital have led to the Government Digital Service role becoming "increasingly unclear," a Parliamentary report has found.
The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report into digital government, found that the role of GDS has "become increasingly unclear" and that it lacked the authority to encourage "the necessary change across departments."
It blamed the "lack of leadership" on the departure of Cabinet Office Minister Francis "the Axeman" Maude in 2015.
Norman Lamb MP, chair of the Science and Technology Committee, said: "As well as a lack of leadership, we also heard of skill shortages and legacy systems, which increase the risk of cyber security attacks. But addressing these challenges requires money and the Government must be willing to invest to save in the future.
"The government must re-address its approach to digitisation quickly if it wants to retain public trust and its envied position on the world stage."
The committee said GDS had made good progress in its early years on standards and platforms. However, it cited a report by the Public Accounts Committee in 2019 that online identification tool Verify - intended to be used across government departments - had been "unsuccessfully implemented, was badly designed, and had technical difficulties that lacked the necessary departmental and leadership buy-in."
It noted legacy IT systems "present a significant barrier" to effective government transformation and digitisation. Last month the National Audit Office warned government plans to throw money at automation and AI to develop public services risk "magnifying" problems around data quality residing in its own legacy systems.
The watchdog had previously estimated £480bn of government revenue was reliant on legacy technology.
First, find out where they are...
The committee recommended that GDS conduct an audit of all legacy systems across government, including where they are based, what actions to take, the expected cost of such action and the resulting timescales.
It added there is "clear evidence that the legacy system issue is going to increase over time" and an audit must be completed no later than December 2020.
On the topic of what digitisation even means, it said: "The open-ended definition of 'digital' has meant that it is hard to assess the full scale of any progress that the UK Government has made with its digitisation agenda. We believe that government digitisation should be defined as transforming how services are delivered so that the relationship between the citizen and the State is enhanced."
Departments and associated agencies should be required to publicly report against these metrics on an annual basis, starting from the financial year 2020/21, highlighting areas of success and areas for improvement. The Cabinet Office should be responsible for overseeing departments’ action plans in response to this annual publication, it said.
To date it has been difficult to ascertain GDS's claimed cost savings. Spending on technology was stopped when Francis Maude implemented spend controls and reviewed a number of technology contracts back in 2011.
However, claims made by outgoing GDS head Kevin Cunnington that the department saved £1bn "through scrutinising technology spending" under his watch (an estimate from within GDS), were criticised by the Institute for Government as being hard to stand up. ®