The Government Digital Service: successes, turmoil, and the focus for the future

In April 2011, the Government Digital Service (GDS) was launched to lead the digital transformation of government. The focus was on making public services digital by default (a policy which envisions most public services being delivered online), and simpler, clearer and faster to use.

Their first major project was the development of GOV.UK. It was to act as the primary source for UK government data and would replace a number of existing websites, including DirectGov. Overall, GOV.UK has been viewed as a GDS success story.

In the latest GDS progress report, it was highlighted that:

  • Over 300 agency and arm’s length bodies’ (ALB) websites had been transitioned over to GOV.UK by the end of 2014;
  • The GOV.UK website averaged 12 million weekly unique visitors in the first quarter of 2015 (25th most used website in the UK);
  • The GOV.UK website saw 13.6 million unique visitors and 21.2 million visits in the last week of January 2015 (this was the likely the result of the 31st January Self-Assessment tax return deadline).

However, GOV.UK has not been without its critics. In February, the Register revealed documents that said that the GDS knew that GOV.UK was:  “destroying useful online services and replacing them with trendy webpages bereft of useful information”

One noted failure was the transition of the Home Office visa and immigration site to GOV.UK. According to their own analysis, the GDS did not have a good enough understanding of the users’ needs.

GDS in turmoil?

At the beginning of August 2015, Executive Director of the GDS Mike Bracken announced he was leaving. In an interview, Mike Bracken explained that he was leaving due to the “stresses and strains” of the role. The current GDS Chief Operating Officer Stephen Foreshew-Cain will move up and replace him.

There have also been a number of other senior GDS leaders departing. These include:

  • Deputy Director Tom Loosemore
  • Director of Strategy Russell Davies
  • Director of Design Ben Terrett
  • Head of User Research Leisa Reichelt
  • Transformation Programme Director of the Government Digital Service Michael Beaven.

These changes have led to speculation about the future of the GDS. Last financial year, the service had a budget of £58 million and approximately 700 members of staff. Computerworld have suggested that the GDS could undergo substantial cuts as part of the HM Treasury’s spending review.  If so, the impact could fundamentally change the GDS’ role.

The future

In August, Matt Hancock MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office, reiterated his support for the GDS. He said:

“the work that GDS is doing, and the vision of Government as a Platform, is changing the core infrastructure of shared digital systems, technology and processes.”

The Minister then went on to emphasise that the GDS has extremely talented people and has a lot more to contribute in the future.

In addition, Eddie Copeland, Head of Technology Policy at the Policy Exchange has outlined 5 points of focus for the ‘next phase’ of the GDS. These include:

  • Be guardian of the rules – the government should lead the way in defining the standards of how front-end government IT should work, although should not be concerned about who provides it, whether that’s public or private sector.
  • Focus on the user / citizen experience – the government should focus on providing a positive customer experience and creating online transactions that are needed.
  • Lead on open standards for data – the use of open standards would reduce the technical barriers to sharing information between different systems.
  • Be an informed customer – failed IT projects were often the fault of the government, therefore the government needs to become a smarter, more demanding customer.
  • Scale best practice – all departments should learn from the successes of the GDS, and try to implement innovative solutions where possible.

Final thoughts

It’s likely that the GDS will play an important role in the continued digital transformation of government services. However, some – including Eddie Copeland – believe that the GDS will become a smaller organisation.  As a result, there may be opportunities for the private sector to get involved in supporting the digital transformation, particularly if they can provide a solid business case.

By Steven McGinty, Idox

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