NAO offers ‘balanced view’ of history of digital transformation, but GDS now needs to focus on Brexit

Much will be made of the UK spending watchdog’s recent report on how the Government Digital Service is adapting to its new way of working – but the real test of government digital is more likely to be Brexit, writes the Institute for Government’s Daniel Thornton.

NAO report sets the stage for lively discussions, but government needs to focus on getting digital right before the UK leaves the EU – Photo credit: PA

With its assessment of digital transformation in government, the National Audit Office last week provoked headlines about “scathing criticism”. It also sets the stage for a lively session at the Public Accounts Committee. 

Although the UK continues to top the UN league table for ‘e-government’, the NAO made some challenging assessments of the state of digital transformation. 

For almost half of the Government Digital Service’s exemplars – digital projects like Universal Credit and Register to Vote – the costs outweighed the benefits.

GDS’s flagship Verify service, which provides identity assurance, is not working, while progress on better use of data has been slow. Finally, GDS’s spending controls are imposing a heavy burden on the rest of government.

While the Public Accounts Committee will no doubt make much of these when it summons GDS director general Kevin Cunnington in a few weeks, it is also possible to be more positive about digital transformation. 

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The exemplars involved new ways of doing things, so even if GDS was bullish about them at the time, it is not surprising that some were more successful than others.

The exemplars were part of the new ways of working that GDS spread across government. These were underpinned by the spending controls, which have saved around £1.3bn since GDS started.

It is also possible to point to successful initiatives such as the Digital Marketplace, an online catalogue of digital and technology services for the UK public sector.

Research we are conducting at the Institute for Government shows that it is broadly working well for vendors and purchasers in the public sector, although improvements can be made. 

“The government needs to sort identity assurance out, and quickly.”

On data, while it is right that progress has been slow, the government can point to the Digital Economy Bill, which is working its way through parliament and will facilitate data sharing by clarifying what can and can’t be shared (albeit with some controversy about privacy protection). The government will soon appoint a new chief data officer.

However, the NAO’s findings on identity assurance are more problematic.

Verify sits at the heart of questions about GDS’s role in providing central functions across government and the public sector. When the Coalition government cancelled ID cards and deleted the national identity register, Verify was created, using private sector providers to check people’s identities, rather than establishing a register.

Unfortunately, more than two-thirds of people using the service do not get successfully verified, and even when they do, the NAO reports that the may need additional checks to use services. 

This is contributing to a lack of take up across government and the public sector, and meanwhile, it seems that HMRC is developing a replacement for Government Gateway, an identity service that has been running for many years. 

If the two systems continue to run in parallel, resources will be wasted and citizens will be turned off digital government. The government needs to sort this out, and quickly.

Overall, the NAO report provides a balanced view of how digital government has been progressing. It provides a useful contribution to the new phase that GDS has started.

“If digital customs services are not reliable, trade and the economy will suffer.”

But this new phase needs to focus on an issue that the NAO does not address – Brexit.

The prospect of leaving the EU at midnight on 29 March 2019 should be focussing minds and resources on some big things that government will need to get right.

Immigration and customs, and a swathe of other services, will need to be expanded to operate new controls that are likely to be part of the UK’s new relationship with the EU.

If these services continue to rely on paper, as immigration does, many new people will need to be employed. And if the expanded digital customs services are not reliable and efficient, trade and the economy will suffer.

The government should be prioritising to make sure that these key services are fully operational when Brexit becomes a reality. 


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