How GDS is driving government digital transformation

Posted on: 28/02/2019

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Employing more than 500 people, The Government Digital Service (GDS) is the governmental department responsible for transforming digital practices of the entire central government, whether the Cabinet Office or the Whitehall departments.

What is GDS?

Created in 2011, the Government Digital Service (GDS) seeks to ensure that the huge number of government departments, all which have different levels of technological maturity, are benefitting from the same levels of digital innovation. It also seeksto improve the experience of residents making use of the different departments, ensuring the right services are digitised and that accounts and information are linked with other systems and services, in addition to striving to make tasks completed with as little effort as possible. When it was first developed, the GDS set out to create a “digital by default” strategy so that any new services offered by the government are available digitally, rather than requiring internal or external parties to fill out paper forms; the idea was not to replace services with digital only options, but instead to encourage those who can turn digital to do so.

What has it achieved?

A major part of the GDS’s work was developing and promoting the gov.uk website, which acts as an umbrella-source of information for government departments. The site houses many application forms and vital services that UK citizens need to access, with everything from driving licence applications to PAYE tax returns as well as information on social care and much more. The central idea behind the site’s development was to create “government-as-a-service” and ensure all digital services used the same components rather than bespoke software. It replaced hundreds of websites used by individual departments and public bodies, encompassing a much more joined-up approach than what existed previously. The goals were clear from the start; make government services more accessible to the public and to reduce government spending on IT.  The 15-month project saw GDS close 85 website domains and subdomains in the process of moving 312 agencies and government organisations over to share one domain. This made it easier for people to find the public services they were looking for; many of them were digitised and available online via gov.uk.

Another achievement was GDS’s spending controls on departments’ IT budgets, where GDS vetoes any contracts that break its £100 million red lines. While there are exceptions like the Ministry of Defence, most departments must work within these controls, which also encourage departments to build prototypes rather than outlining specs in long documentation, and to break contracts into chunks, rather than going with one large provider. The spending controls directly saved £339 million in 2015/16, according to the Cabinet Office.

A key ongoing project is Government-as-a-Platform (GaaP). The scheme aims to replace departments’ customised IT systems with shared, standardised platforms. Doing so would cut down on costly duplicated IT systems, such as when the Ministry of Justice wrote off a £56 million ERP system after discovering the Cabinet Office had already built such a system with the same provider.

The future

GDS has evolved from a driving force of digital departments dragging along with it, to a guiding hand helping the public sector achieve digital transformation. How will its role develop in the future? By 2020, the government wants Verify to have 25 million users – a huge increase on the 1.1 million it had as of January 2017. This will require an enormous level of engagement and they will likely have to bring in lots of alternative sources of ID such as bank accounts and credit cards.

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Another ambitious goal of the strategy is to boost digital skills within government, getting civil servants to understand digital and digital experts to understand government. GDS is launching a Digital Skills Academy to train people up, and a Data Science Accelerator Programme to improve people’s ability to handle data. By improving its rewards structure, it believes it can hold onto digital experts too, fending off the lure of higher wages in the private sector. What’s more, more skills will help GDS deliver the big goals of the transformation strategy and train the next generation of technologists in the languages that they believe will deliver their vison of the future.