The Government Digital Service (GDS) has a mixed track record across government, and needs to be clearer about its role in order to support the digital transformation of Whitehall and to generate value for money for taxpayers, a new report by the National Audit Office (NAO) has found.
The report praised the GDS for a number of its achievements, but warns that the department "is trying to cover too broad a remit with unclear accountabilities".
The NAO said that GDS' early impact across government showed that there is a role for it promoting new approaches to IT and developing expertise. For example, it could quickly introduce digital service standards for users based on those used for GOV.UK.
The NAO has previously found that the methods promoted by GDS, such as agile development, are already widely used across government, and that digital leaders are perceived as breaking down traditional barriers between IT and other functions.
However, the NAO claimed that the organisation had found it difficult to redefine its role as it has grown and transformation had progressed.
Despite an exodus of senior leaders in recent years, GDS has still expanded: two years ago it received £455m in funding over the four years of the current spending review period.
But as departments have moved ahead with transformation programmes, the NAO said it found widespread views across Whitehall that GDS had struggled to adapt to its changing role.
The NAO stated that initially, the organisation supported exemplars of digital transformation. It identified 25 services across government for end-to-end service redesign in 2012, and by 2015, 15 of the exemplars were providing live online services, with a further five available to the public in trial form. Others have since followed.
But major transformation projects have achieved "only mixed success". In nearly two-thirds of 22 exemplars, GDS found that improvements in online services did not result in existing systems being reconfigured or becoming more efficient.
The NAO found that even in areas where GDS had established a good track record, such as controls over spending and service design, there has been an enormous amount of resources spent with little in return.
GDS reported that controls have reduced spending on IT by £1.3bn over five years to April 2016, but the NAO's analysis showed that requests for approval for amounts of up to £1m accounted for 47 per cent of the time GDS staff spend on spending controls - but only resulted in one per cent of savings in 2015-16.
The NAO also praised GDS for helping to increase flexibility in departments' IT contracts, particularly encouraging the use of SMEs through its frameworks including G-Cloud - but said that 94 per cent of spending in 2015-16 remained with larger enterprises, suggesting that more could be done in this space.
Perhaps the most damning part of the report is where the NAO suggested that adoption of Verify had been undermined by its performance, and that GDS had lost focus on the longer-term strategic case of the programme.
It said that because it was hard to use, GDS had to soften its stance on making it mandatory for departments, meaning that nine of the 12 services using Verify can now be accessed via a department's chosen way of allowing users to log-in to services as well.
"This parallel access undermines the current business case and risks creating confusion for service users," the report said.
"Verify presents a strategic opportunity to improve the way that personal data is used across government… based on a single view of identity. But this strategic case has not been sufficiently developed, tested and communicated," the NAO added.
Meanwhile, there has been inconsistency from GDS on its framework of standards and guidance - with overlapping guidance or broad principles, leaving scope for interpretation and disagreement from departments. It hasn't provided detailed guidance on how to implement standards in practice, the NAO said.
In a bid to make assurance requirements easier to understand, GDS is now introducing approvals and assurance mechanisms that consider departments' overall portfolios and reduce burdens from controls. The organisation is also adopting a more collaborative and flexible approach to supporting departments, the NAO said, while the 2017 Government Transformation Strategy has underlined GDS's importance in supporting transformation across government.
So GDS is learning from its experiences over the past few years, but according to the NAO, it has not yet provided a level of change that will enable government to reduce costs further while still meeting 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," Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office concluded.
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