Data reveals imbalance in effort-to-gain ratio for GDS spend controls team

NAO urges GDS to use ‘proportionate effort’ on spend controls as data shows lowest cost digital projects take up most of the spend controls team’s time but deliver the smallest savings​​


GDS team is spending most of its time on smaller projects that don’t deliver high proportion of savings – Photo credit: Pixabay

The Government Digital Service’s spend control team – which assess digital projects and programmes over a certain value – spent 47% of its time in 2015-16 dealing with smaller applications for work that is valued at less than £1m.

However, these projects produced just 1% of overall financial savings delivered by spending controls in that year.

Data released by the National Audit Office in its report on GDS’s role reveal the disparity between the time the GDS team dedicates to projects and the savings the projects bring in, and said it should work to ensure that “proportionate effort is spent on controls”.

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The data shows that 23% of the team’s time was spent on £1m to £5m projects, which brought in 2% of the overall financial savings.

In contrast, 26% of the team’s time was spent on projects worth between £5m and £50m – work that delivered 29% of the overall financial savings.

Meanwhile, the less common, but highest value projects – those worth over £50m – brought in the largest share of the financial savings, at 26%, but these took up just 4% of the team’s time.

GDS is changing its approach to spend controls, and removing the lowest barrier of £100,000 limit on digital projects, which director general Kevin Cunnington has said are now “too low” for most digital projects run by the bigger departments.

In an interview with PublicTechnology he said that the new approach would see departments having their 18-month roadmap assessed “in some detail” to decide which areas the team would focus on.

He predicted that this would see GDS keeping an eye on 20% of the departments’ work and getting more closely involved with a further 10% of the projects.

This, he said, would reduce the burden on the team – which the NAO notes is made up of just eight people.

“Because we were obliged to – as part of the spend controls process – assess every £100,000 development, it meant we were doing lots and lots of them,” he said. “Not being involved in 70% [of projects] is a big difference.”

The new approach also aims to make the review process “less adversarial”, and help departments more along the way as they develop their projects.

However, the plans to reduce the set limits have been met with concern by some commentators, who argue that loosening the rules runs the risk of letting departments fall back into bad habits.

Matt Jukes, product manager at mySociety and a former civil servant working in the digital, data and technology profession, said at the time: “I’m a big fan of what the spend controls team have achieved in the last few years, but this more ‘holistic’ approach seems likely to open the floodgates again to all manner of ill-conceived projects.”

He added: “I always felt that the ‘one size fits all’ approach was part of the initiative’s power – no special treatment and clear lines actually made it easier for teams in departments to get good work done not harder.”


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