Government Digital Service’s (GDS) early impact across government shows that there is a key role for it in promoting new approaches and developing expertise, but GDS has found it difficult to redefine its role as it has grown, according to the National Audit Office.

Today’s report found that GDS has successfully reshaped government’s approach to technology and transformation, but there remains a risk it is trying to cover too broad a remit with unclear accountabilities. In 2015, GDS received £455 million in funding over the four years of the current Spending Review period. At the same time, departments have moved ahead with transformation programmes. The NAO found widespread views across government that GDS has struggled to adapt to its changing role.

Initially, GDS supported exemplars of digital transformation. In 2012, it identified 25 services across government for end-to-end service redesign. It aimed to show how new approaches could make it easier for people to access services online and help remove unnecessary costs. By March 2015, 15 of the exemplars were providing live online services and a further five were available to the public in trial form. As transformation programmes, however, they have had only mixed success. In a lessons learned exercise in 2015, GDS identified positive net present values for only 12 of the 22 programmes for which data were available.

GDS has established strong controls over spending and service design, and estimates that controls have reduced spending on IT by £1.3 billion over five years to April 2016. Cabinet Office controls have helped to increase flexibility in departments’ IT contracts. GDS has also introduced frameworks such as G-Cloud and the Digital Services Framework to improve contracting with small and medium-sized enterprises. The combination of strict controls and uncertain requirements, however, has led to confusion about GDS’s role in assuring major programmes. In addition, GDS has not sustained its framework of standards and guidance. The NAO found instances of overlapping guidance, for example blogs as well as service manuals being used. In some cases, guidance had been removed and web links broken.

GDS built on its experience with the GOV.UK website to develop a series of programmes to build and run its own central systems, including Verify for identity assurance. However, Verify has been difficult for some people to use and departments have taken longer and found it more difficult to adopt than expected. As a result, GDS now allows departments to offer other options for online access, in parallel, for nine of the 12 services currently using GOV.UK Verify. According to the NAO, this undermines the business case for the Verify programme and makes the process less clear for users.

According to the NAO, GDS is now adopting a more collaborative and flexible approach to supporting departments. GDS will base its approach on individual departments’ circumstances and take account of the importance of managing existing systems.

“Digital transformation has a mixed track record across government. It has not yet provided a level of change that will allow government to further reduce costs while still meeting people's needs.To achieve value for money and support transformation across government, GDS needs to be clear about its role and strike a balance between robust assurance and a more consultative approach.”

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office

Read the full report

Digital Transformation in Government (2017)

Notes for editors

£150m Government Digital Service (GDS) budget for 2016-17 £1.3bn Reported savings from spending controls since 2011 57% Proportion of GDS budget over the next four years allocated to developing platforms £455m Funding for GDS agreed in the 2015 Spending Review for the period April 2016 to March 2020 25 Digital exemplars identified in 2012 12 Digital exemplars assessed by GDS in March 2015 as demonstrating positive net present value (of 22 where data was available) 1% Share of estimated savings from spending controls for applications below £1 million 3000 Civil servants to be trained through the digital academy each year  
  1. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website. Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website.
  2. The National Audit Office scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government. The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Sir Amyas Morse KCB, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO, which employs some 785 people. The C&AG certifies the accounts of all government departments and many other public sector bodies. He has statutory authority to examine and report to Parliament on whether departments and the bodies they fund have used their resources efficiently, effectively, and with economy. Our studies evaluate the value for money of public spending, nationally and locally. Our recommendations and reports on good practice help government improve public services, and our work led to audited savings of £1.21 billion in 2015.

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