By Tony Collins
In a report published yesterday (25 October 2016) the National Audit Office said it will shortly be undertaking a review of the Government Digital Service.
It will study GDS’s “achievements and the challenges it faces, looking in particular at whether the centre of government is supporting better use of technology and business transformation in government”.
It mentioned its review of GDS in a report on Progress on the Common Agricultural Policy Delivery Programme. Among other things the report looked at the IT that is supposed to support payments of farmer subsidies.
With GDS’s help Defra’s Rural Payments Agency adopted an agile approach to paying subsidies but the two parties fell out and GDS stopped working on the programme.
The NAO’s report suggests that the Rural Payments Agency is glad to be rid of GDS.
“The GDS no longer has significant involvement in the Programme and the Rural Payments Agency told us it has not sought any further support.
“Its distance from the Programme has allowed the Department [DEFRA] to shift from a focus on agile and digital delivery to an approach that combines agile software development with programme management and governance arrangements with which the RPA is more familiar.”
Government Computing has a good analysis of the NAO report.
Francis Maude, meanwhile, has warned that the work of GDS, which has helped to “stop the wrong things happening”, is being undermined, reports Public Finance.
Maude, who set up GDS in 2011, blamed mandarins who were trying to reassert their autonomy.
Maude said that developments such as controls on spending and improvements in service standard assessment processes do not happen spontaneously.
“You have to drive it centrally, and departments, separate ministries and separate agencies prize their autonomy and they will always want to take it back, and that is now happening.
“Just at the moment when the UK has just recently been ranked top in the world for digital government, we are beginning to unwind precisely the arrangements that had led to that and which were being copied in America and Australia and also some other countries as well,” said Maude.
“This is, for me, a pity – there is a sense these old structures in government, which are essentially about preserving the power of the mandarins, are being reasserted.”
He said there was a “continuing need for very strong central strategic leadership with the power backing it up to stop the wrong things happening.”
Tom Kibasi, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, said any dismantling of GDS illustrated “government’s extraordinary propensity to self harm”.
He said it was very odd that GDS was being “scaled back and unwound at just the moment that it appears to be successful”.
In August 2016 Maude warned that it would be a “black day” if GDS were dismantled.
That said, GDS has its critics.
A clash of cultures between GDS and the Rural Payments Agency made it almost inevitable that the two sides would fall out. This is also what happened between GDS and the DWP.
If some senior civil servants had their way, particularly at the DWP, GDS would slowly lose its identity and its staff gradually dispersed throughout the civil and public services.
Clearly civil servants at the Rural Payments Agency looked at GDS as comprising mostly agile-wedded idealists obsessed with technological innovation rather than paying subsidies to farmers.
But long before the arrival of GDS, the RPA had a history of IT failure. Perhaps the RPA would rather be left on its own to fail without GDS’s help?
The latest NAO report is a little more positive about the RPA’s achievements than some past reports.
But this week’s Farmers Weekly, which has reported extensively on delays of correct subsidy payments to farmers, quoted the National Farmers Union as saying that problems from 2015 claims were still far from over.
The future of GDS?
How easy is it for senior officials in any large central department to work closely with the Government Digital Service?
Departments – particularly HMRC and the DWP – cherish their autonomy, so GDS is seen by some permanent secretaries as an unnecessary interference.
And when it comes to the IT of central departments, GDS has no clear role.
But GDS’s creation was a good idea. Without it, departments will be left alone to continue IT spending on a vast scale.
GDS’s admittedly brief challenge at the Rural Payments Agency and at the DWP on the Universal Credit IT programme has, arguably, slightly modernised IT approaches within those departments.
And even if the costs of big Whitehall IT contracts have not changed much, there’s no doubt that the public face of government IT has improved noticeably (eg using digital passport photos for online driving licence renewals),
The more its people are resented by high-ranking civil servants, the better job GDS is probably doing on behalf of the public.
Consensus can sometimes mean complacency. Long may GDS’s relationship with departments be characterised by a state of creative, noble tension.
National Audit Office report “Progress on the Common Agricultural Policy Delivery Programme”.
GDS’s departure from CAP programme leads RPA to ditch agile approach – Government Computing