David Cameron has praised the Government Digital Service as one of the “great unsung triumphs” of the previous government, as he set out his vision for an overhaul of public services.
In a speech calling for a “smarter state” ahead of the November 25 Spending Review, the prime minister singled out the cross-government digital team, which has recently seen a number of high-profile departures amid speculation it could face a tough settlement in the Autumn.
Cameron told an audience in Yorkshire that he believes “many of our country’s efforts to extend opportunity have been undermined by a tolerance of state failure” – and vowed to pursue an agenda of “reform”, “devolution” and “efficiency” over the next five years.
“Businesses are always looking at ways to streamline their functions so they can become more effective,” he said.
“I would argue it’s an imperative – a moral imperative – for government to do the same. When money is tight, it’s simply unforgiveable to waste taxpayers’ money. More than that, efficient government can actually help with our progressive goals.”
Cameron reiterated a commitment to open up contracts to smaller businesses, release government land for sale, and reduce the government estate.
And he added: “Indeed, across the spectrum, there are opportunities for us to make a difference not just to people’s pockets but to people’s lives.
“For example, I believe the creation of the Government Digital Service is one of the great unsung triumphs of the last parliament. A whole series of things that used to involve complicated paperwork can now be done online – from registering to vote to paying your taxes.”
Cameron is the latest senior figure to endorse GDS since the announcement that the team’s executive director Mike Bracken is to leave Whitehall for a post at the Co-Operative. A raft of further departures have since been announced, with GDS deputy director Tom Loosemore; transformation programme director Michael Beaven; director of strategy Russell Davies; head of user research Leisa Reichelt; and director of design Ben Terrett also deciding to move on.
Last month Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock posted on the GDS blog to say he wanted the team to remain the “digital core of government” and stressed its role in “helping the public sector deliver better digital services for less”.
The prime minister’s decision to highlight GDS in his speech was welcomed by the Institute for Government think tank.
“The need to find efficiencies in government runs across all our work, and we welcome the importance the PM places on digital – especially as questions have recently been raised about whether this programme will have sufficient resource and support,” said IfG director Peter Riddell.
However, Riddell said Cameron’s wider vision for public service reform would require the centre of government to let go of “real power and resources”, and pointed out that there had been “several false starts in the past on decentralisation”.
The Local Government Association – the national body representing local authorities – meanwhile said that increased responsibilities for local authorities needed to be accompanied by a “fairer” deal on funding.
“We urge the government to match the ambition shown by cities and county areas by devolving, or handing greater local influence over, at least £60bn of central government spending down to local areas,” said LGA chair Gary Porter.
“However, local authorities will face £10 billion worth of extra cost pressures by 2020 even before expected funding reductions. Further pressure will be placed on already stretched local services if the government does not fully assess and fund new burdens for councils when making its spending decisions for the next five years.
“For the Spending Review to be sustainable to councils, decisions must be about spending smarter, not only about spending less.”