UK's GDS gets mixed review in government audit
The UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS) — the body tasked with driving digital transformation across the government — has only a mixed track record of success, a new audit shows.
The GDS was established in 2011 as part of the then Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government’s Government ICT strategy. In its early years, the GDS showed that government could quickly introduce digital service standards for users.
Since the launch the GDS has expanded significantly — the audit shows that the GDS has been allocated €455 million ($749.7 million) in funding for the period between April 2016 and March 2020.
A report from the National Audit Office found that the GDS’s early impact across government was substantial, with the service estimating that the controls it has established over spending and service design in government have cut IT spending by £1.3 billion ($2.14 billion) over a five-year period.
But the audit found that requests for approval for digital expenditure for amounts of up to £1 million account for 47% of the time the GDS took on spending controls in the 2015–16 financial year, but only 1% of the savings from this period.
The audit also found that GDS has struggled to redefine its role as it has grown, and may be trying to cover too broad a remit. There is also significant confusion about the service’s role in assuring major programs.
As an example of the GDS’s mixed performance, the audit notes that in 2012 the agency identified 25 services across government in need of end-to-end service redesign by supporting exemplars of digital transformation. But in 2015, the service identified positive net present values for only 12 of these programs.
The National Audit Office also reported finding examples of the GDS providing overlapping guidance, such as using both blogs and service manuals for the same advice. The standards have also been stated as broad principles, leaving scope for interpretation and disagreement, and the GDS has not provided detailed guidance on how to implement the standards in practice.
These inconsistencies have made it difficult for departments to anticipate how the GDS will interpret their performance against these standards, the report states.
But the audit notes that the GDS is taking steps to address this issue by introducing approvals and assurance mechanisms that will consider departments’ overall performance and reduce the burdens involved with controls.
The GOV.UK Verify system that the GDS has adopted for identity assurance has meanwhile proved difficult to use and departments have found it more difficult and time consuming to adopt than expected. This has left the service supporting other verification options for nine of the 12 services currently using GOV.UK verify, which the audit states undermines the business case for the program.
The audit likewise found that despite efforts from the GDS and the Crown Commercial Service to diversify the government’s ICT supplier base, including introducing initiatives designed to improve contracting with SMEs, the vast majority of spending remains with large enterprises.
Although strategies including the G-Cloud framework have led to more contracts going to SMEs, large enterprises captured 94% of IT spending in 2015–16, down just one percentage point from 2012–13.
The audit does note that the GDS is actively attempting to address many of the concerns raised in the report, but will need to be clear in its role in order for these efforts to be successful.
In response to these findings, the report recommends that the GDS more clearly defines its roles, responsibilities and plans for delivering transformation strategies, with the service itself, departments and other parts of the centre of government all sharing in these responsibilities.
The GDS should also work closely with the rest of government to establish common principles for balancing departmental and cross-government priorities; work with departments to develop more detailed technical standards relating to maintaining or migrating existing systems; and ensure consistent monitoring of performance and spending against clear technical and policy measures.
“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,” the National Audit Office’s head, Amyas Morse, commented.
“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.”
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