NAO recognises GDS’ transforming role but warns of growing pains
Watchdog fears GDS is trying to cover too broad a remit; wants roles, responsibilities and plans more clearly defined; and urges review of infrastructure, including Verify, “to ensure it meets a proven need”
A National Audit Office (NAO) report into the Government Digital Service (GDS) and its digital transformation of government has concluded GDS has a key role in promoting new approaches and developing expertise, but has struggled to redefine its role as it has grown.
The report, published today, found that GDS has successfully reshaped government's approach to technology and transformation, but the NAO worries there remains a risk it is trying to cover too broad a remit with unclear accountabilities.
In its key findings, the NAO found that GDS has successfully reshaped government’s approach to technology and transformation.
“In its early years, GDS showed that government could quickly introduce digital service standards for users based on those used for GOV.UK. In our previous work, we have found that methods promoted by GDS, such as agile development, are used widely across government, and that digital leaders are perceived as breaking down traditional barriers between IT and other functions,” it said.
But it continued that GDS has found it difficult to redefine its role as it has grown and transformation has progressed.
“GDS has expanded significantly. In 2015, it received £455m in funding over the four years of the current spending review period. At the same time, departments have moved ahead with transformation programmes. We found widespread views across government that GDS has struggled to adapt to its changing role.
“The 2017 Government Transformation Strategy has relaunched GDS’s approach to supporting transformation across government. GDS intends to support end-to-end transformation. It will continue its work on improving digital services for users and developing new central systems for cross-government use, but will also tackle the more immediate challenges of changing existing services, systems and processes.”
The NAO accepted that GDS has established strong controls over spending and service design, citing that controls have reduced spending on IT by £1.3bn over five years to April 2016. It added that Cabinet Office controls have also helped to increase flexibility in departments' IT contracts, while the introduction of frameworks such as G-Cloud and the Digital Services Framework have helped improve contracting with small and medium-sized enterprises.
But it argued that the combination of strict controls and uncertain requirements has led to confusion about GDS's role in assuring major programmes. It also worried that GDS has not sustained its framework of standards and guidance.
In terms of supporting digital transformation across government, the NAO discussed the exemplars of digital transformation where 25 services across government were identified for end-to-end service redesign and where new approaches could make it easier for people to access services online and help remove unnecessary costs. By March 2015, it said, 15 of the exemplars were providing live online services and a further five were available to the public in trial form.
But it concluded that major transformation programmes have had only mixed success.
“In a lessons learned exercise in 2015, GDS identified positive net present values for only 12 of the 22 exemplars for which data were available. In nearly two-thirds of the exemplars, GDS found that improvements in online services did not result in existing systems being reconfigured or becoming more efficient.”
Discussing GDS’ ongoing role, the NAO said, “GDS is now adopting a more collaborative and flexible approach to supporting departments. GDS will base its approach on individual departments’ circumstances and take account of the importance of managing existing systems. It announced plans in September 2016 to take responsibility for a cross-government digital academy, aiming to train 3,000 civil servants a year. It is trialling work with the Complex Transactions Team and Infrastructure and Projects Authority to offer multidisciplinary advice on areas such as IT contracts.”
GDS has long been identified by its support for the GOV.UK Verify identity assurance scheme, which provides a single route for people to prove their identity and access government services online and the NAO makes some strong suggestions regarding its future, arguing that GDS needs to revisit its case for Verify’s development.
It said, “Verify presents an opportunity to improve the way that personal data is used across government enabling better use of data between departments and wider government, based on a single secure view of identity. But the current business case is based on reducing duplication or simplifying the way new services are developed.
“Our review shows that GDS could have done more to understand the existing landscape of department services to support their early work on identity assurance for individuals. For example there was no full analysis of how existing services identified customers or analysis of the way in which customer data is held in existing services or how this might affect the user journey from Verify to completion of the service transaction. Such analysis may have provided more understanding about likely rate of take-up and the type of incentives required for departments to use Verify.
“GDS’s estimate of savings is heavily dependent on avoided costs in departments. Estimates of avoided costs are high, based on rejected applications in spending controls. However, it is not clear that these are good benchmarks; rejected applications are likely to be high cost and savings may be due to traditional controls over spending rather than avoiding duplication through Verify.”
It concluded that GDS is now exploring ways to increase the use of Verify. “For example, recognising that the current verification process is unnecessarily difficult for some services, GDS is considering ways to expand Verify to provide a lower level of assurance for services that do not need high levels of identity verification.
“It is not yet clear whether Verify will be able to overcome the limitations that have prevented its widespread adoption across government, or whether attempts to expand in other ways will be successful in encouraging departments to adopt it. Take-up and cost projections remain optimistic and there will always be many services that do not use the current Verify service (for example, medical services with higher assurance requirements or businesses using tax services)."
On the use of data in government, the NAO said GDS had established a data team to improve infrastructure around data, develop policy and promote open data. It also supported the drafting of provisions in the Digital Economy Bill to support better data sharing and has also worked with other organisations, such as the Office for National Statistics, to build capabilities in analytics across government.
However, the NAO believes difficult aspects of data use still need to be addressed. “We recently reported on weaknesses in data and information security. While GDS has concentrated on developing ‘registers’ (canonical lists, such as countries or local authority areas), there is little strategic overview of the data needs of departments and no common view of how best to assess privacy concerns, consent and security.”
Offering a way forwards for GDS as it embarks on the next phase of its work to support transformation in government, the NAO recommended:
- Roles, responsibilities and plans for delivering the new transformation strategy need to be more clearly defined. “GDS, departments and other parts of the centre of government should clarify responsibilities for transformation, including the role of the Transformation Peer Group. GDS should undertake a further phase of planning with clear costs, timescales and monitoring arrangements.”
- GDS should work closely with the rest of government to establish common principles for balancing departmental and cross-government priorities. “GDS should develop a more systematic analysis of what needs to be done centrally rather than by departments, in particular in strengthening government’s approach to the effective use and management of data. It should review its continuing development of central infrastructure such as Verify to ensure that it meets a proven need.”
- GDS should improve the clarity, relevance and consistency of guidance and technical standards. “It should work with departments to develop more detailed technical standards, in particular relating to maintaining or migrating existing systems. It should make clear the relative status of guidance documents and publish how and why changes are made over time.”
- GDS needs to ensure consistent monitoring and robust assurance of performance and spending. “It should track performance against clear technical and programme measures, working with the centre of government to establish proportionate but robust approvals and controls over spending.”
Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, 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.”
Responding to the report, a government spokesperson said: "This report recognises that the Government Digital Service has successfully reshaped government's approach to technology and transformation. It identifies some key achievements - including £1.3 billion in savings through our IT spending controls process.