MPs call for government to ‘clarify GDS’s role’ to regain lost momentum

Written by Sam Trendall on 10 July 2019 in News

Select committee report asks whether tech agency needs new powers, and calls for ministerial digital champions

GDS employees at the organisation's London headquarters   Credit: Crown Copyright/Open Government Licence

A parliamentary committee has concluded that “the government needs to clarify GDS’s role and its relationships with other departments” and ensure the digital agency has enough power to enforce standards and controls.

The Science and Technology Select Committee today published its final report, following a year-long investigation into digital government. Its overarching conclusion is that, in recent years, there has been a “loss of momentum” in government’s digital transformation efforts. 

This has been caused, according to MPs, in part by a lack of political leadership in the post-Francis Maude era, as well as by “the departure of senior civil service figures in GDS”. An increasing lack of clarity as to the role played by GDS has also contributed to the slowdown, according to the committee. 

To help arrest this, the committee recommends that GDS should have a dual role: “To provide advice to departments when needed, but also to devise and enforce minimum standards to be applied consistently across government digital services.”

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Although departments that are able to do so should retain responsibility for building services and platforms, the government needs clarify how GDS works with the rest of Whitehall and examine “whether there are any powers it needs to compel departments to take particular action”.

Another recommendation made by the committee is that, by the end of this year, each department should appoint “a ministerial digital champion… who has responsibility for using innovation and digitisation to transform the way their department operate”. 

Elsewhere in the report, MPs urge the government to kick-start “a national debate” on the potential use of single unique identifiers to allow citizens to access online services. Alongside this, efforts must also be made to “ensure that those who are not digitally connected have alternative ways of accessing services”.

Committee chair Norman Lamb said: “Single unique identifiers can transform the efficiency and transparency of government services. The Government should ensure there is a national debate on single unique identifiers for citizens to use when accessing public services along with the right of the citizen to know exactly what the Government is doing with their data. In the UK, we have no idea when and how government departments are accessing and using our data. We could learn from the very different relationship between citizen and the state in Estonia.”

Legacy audit
The committee also recommends that, by the end of 2020, GDS should complete “an audit of all legacy systems across government” and report back its findings – something that the digital agency has already committed to doing as part of the recently published Government Technology Innovation Strategy.

An audit of data sharing between government departments should be conducted by the DCMS, MPs said, while the Crown Commercial Service should review existing technology frameworks to ascertain the extent to which they are accessible to SMEs.

The committee expressed its disappointment that a chief data officer for government is yet to be appointed – despite this commitment being made as part of the 2017 Government Transformation Strategy. The report recommends that the role is filled by the end of this year. MPs also urged the government to reconsider the possibility of creating a dedicated post as minister for cybersecurity.

Lamb said: “The potential that digital Government can bring is huge: transforming the relationship between the citizen and the state, saving money and making public services more efficient and agile. However, it is clear that the current digital service offered by the government has lost momentum and is not transforming the citizen-state relationship as it could.”

He added: “As well as a lack of leadership, we also heard of skill shortages and legacy systems, which increase the risk of cyber security attacks. But addressing these challenges requires money and the government must be willing to invest to save in the future. The government must re-address its approach to digitisation quickly if it wants to retain public trust and its envied position on the world stage.”

In response, a Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “The UK is a world leader in digital government, with its work consistently ranked in the top five of the UN's digital government survey. We are already working on many of the areas suggested in this report and the work of the Government Digital Service has helped to establish national digital services for the USA, Australia and Canada. The Cabinet Office continues to lead this agenda. In just the last month we have launched an AI guide, a Government Technology Innovation Strategy and a new innovation procurement framework." 


About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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