Think tank urges government to clarify role of GDS in long-awaited digital strategy

Written by Rebecca Hill on 5 December 2016 in News

The government’s digital transformation strategy must identify the trade-offs the Government Digital Service will be expected to make in implementing the work, the Institute for Government has said.

Government must address question-marks over budgets, responsibilities and priorities - Photo credit: Flickr, Leo Leung, CC BY 2.0

The strategy, which was expected in the first half of the year and was repeatedly delayed by the European Union referendum and changes in both the government and its own leadership, is due before Christmas.

It is understood to be making its way around departments before it is published, and is thought to focus on three objectives – making government simple for citizens to interact with; making government more open; and transforming the way government delivers.

However, in a blogpost on the IfG’s website, programme director Daniel Thornton cautions that “government strategies are often aspirational rather than real”.

He said that the IfG, which recently published a report on government digital – identifying problems with leadership, legacy systems and retention of skilled staff – will be looking at five areas to assess whether the strategy is likely to help government meet its digital ambitions.

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These targets include setting a measurable baseline for the work, a clear explanation of how digital thinking will be brought in earlier on in the policy-making process, how governance of digital projects will be improved and how the £450m announced in the 2015 spending review would be allocated.

Government must also offer clarity on the roles and responsibilities of both GDS at the centre and the individual departments so it is clear what is expected of each. “This should include responsibilities for developing digital capability, where we found that government was struggling,” Thornton said.

The strategy should also identify clear priorities for GDS, as well as any trade-offs it is likely to have to make.

For instance, Thornton said, whether GDS “will continue to build applications for use across government, or will move more towards supporting departments in transforming their services”.

In a recent interview, the service’s leader Kevin Cunnington suggested that GDS would continue with both these aspects.

He told journalists he wanted GDS to offer more advice to departments, indicating he planned to take a less “adversarial” approach to relations with departments, but also that it would still develop services – contrary to rumours that it was scaling back on the amount of development work it did.

At the time, Cunnington said that he wanted GDS to have more of a national presence, while focusing on the “hard stuff” that is at the intersection of digital programmes, transformational programmes and manifesto commitments, while improving the support government offers to citizens.

The strategy is expected to also emphasise the importance of working across silos and organisational boundaries to help improve the services provided to citizens and the need to ensure that the front and back-office systems are working together

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