Yesterday, the government reluctantly agreed to share with the public a series of documents on the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) controversial Universal Credit programme.
I say reluctantly, because work and pensions secretary Esther McVey, like a stroppy child stomping her feet in protest, said she would not be doing it again, and highlighted that the decision to release the documents was “exceptional”.
It was indeed exceptional, because freedom of information campaigners and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) have been fighting the government on access to these documents for donkey’s years. The department has fought tooth and nail to not have, what by now are old, historic reviews of the programme, put in the public domain.
[Warning: before you go on, be aware this does turn into a bit of a rant].
Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see the internal project assessment reviews (PARs) on UC published, and it’s definitely a huge win for transparency, but this is just one battle, and the fight is far from over.
Most of the time, it’s not so much about what you say, but how you say it. And just because the government is releasing the documents, it’s not saying yes to transparency.
It’s not the first time it’s been told. This dark cloud of secrecy has been hanging over Universal Credit since the beginning, and it’s faced constant criticism for it. A Computer Weekly headline in 2014, stated: “MPs accuse MPA of disguising Universal Credit in a “veil of secrecy”. In 2016, a similar headline said: “PAC criticises Universal Credit programme for lack of transparency”
Also in 2016, civil service CEO John Manzoni stated that lessons learned from digital technologies will help improve the track record of all major projects in government, but have they? Because this isn’t a DWP specific problem, this is a chronic government disease.
IT programme manager and freedom-of-information campaigner John Slater has called it a “fortress mentality”, and I am inclined to agree.
Large government IT projects seem to suffer from many of the same problems. I have several times posed the question: Why are big government IT projects still going wrong? I think I finally have the answer: BLINKERS. This is of course a simplistic answer, and there are many more factors in play, but one thing’s for sure:
It doesn’t matter how many times they are told, or who does the telling. It seems that those running government IT projects often refuse to take any advice or criticism on board. Instead, they just plough ahead.
When news broke that critical border IT systems won’t be ready in time for Brexit for instance, the government simply shrugged its shoulders and went oh well, “risks to the border won’t change immediately.” No need for concern here.
Now, I refuse to believe that they don’t see the problems themselves, or that there aren’t people running around Whitehall tearing their hair out in panic, swearing loudly when something goes wrong. Yet, what the public hears is that it’s all good. Even when it’s clearly not.
If I have one piece of advice to any department planning to run a large government IT project in the future, it’s this: Sometimes, it’s better just to tell the truth. If you admit you’ve messed up, people tend to not be as angry. But playing this whole Stepford Wives game of pretending everything is perfect, won’t work when the cracks start to appear.
Back to the DWP. McVey says that it’s “ critical to the effectiveness of the Infrastructure & Projects Authority assurance framework for participants to be confident that their comments will be non-attributable and that review reports will be treated as confidential”.
And s McVey, you do have a point. Sometimes, there is certain things happening in government that probably should never see the light of day. But there is this thing called redaction. If you want names left out, or certain pieces of information to stay secret, you can take those out. Will that anger some? Sure. But keeping all the information out of the public eye will anger more.
The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, so when will government accept it needs to be more transparent?
Politics, rightly or wrongly, has an impact on government technology projects. It’s an inevitable part of having a democracy and political prowess can be used to drive transformation, but can it also become an obstacle to success?
Earlier this week, I wrote a story in which shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett criticised the government’s identity assurance platform Gov.uk Verify.
Trickett, whose job remit includes calling out government on poor performances, said the Verify programme is being handled appallingly.
“Not only is it inefficient and clearly failing, it also brings into question the security of citizens and the accountability of public services,” he said.
He’s not the first to have criticised the project, in fact, even the National Audit Office (NAO) highlighted issues with Verify earlier this year, saying the Government Digital Service (GDS) has lost focus on the strategic case for the platform.
Add on Labour MP and shadow Cabinet Office minister Trickett’s comments, which also included criticising the Tories approach to public services, which he says is “cut them, take away offices in communities or local government, and administrate what’s left online,” and it becomes political.
But is that necessarily a bad thing? Following the story, Matthew McGrory, group strategy director at Six Degrees Group highlights frustrations around the politicising of the issue.
“The politics that inevitably sometimes hampers these large-scale technology projects can sometimes be frustrating,” he says.
“Whilst I understand the need for constructive debate to challenge that the country is getting value for money I feel that the opinion may be misplaced in this particular regard.”
However, he does add that Trickett is right to point out that the project isn’t delivering what it said it was going to, and he has “no issue with that being challenged and scrutinised”.
That is just good governing and is the exact job I expect a shadow cabinet minister to be doing,” he says, but adds he feels the comments are “driven from trying to somehow attach the Verify programme to the austerity programme introduced by the Coalition government and scoring a political goal at the same time”.
“So please don’t ‘throw it in the bin’ because that’s the way the wind is blowing this particular month. Consider carefully what citizens want and any changes should be made with citizens at the heart of it,” he says.
He argues that government as platform (GaaP), the programme Verify is a part of “just makes common sense” and represents a “collaborative way of working within government that has long been overdue”.
McGrory’s comments are fair. GaaP as a principle is valuable, and getting rid of Verify and starting over would probably not be a particularly good decision.
Sometimes politics can cause unnecessary chaos, but where should we draw the line? I’d argue (and please do correct me if I’m wrong) that most comments ever made by any politician, whether it’s a backbencher, a prominent MP or the prime minister herself, are political, regardless of context.
But is it ok that technology projects become a political issue? Does a comment being politically driven make it less valid? And ultimately, does criticism such as Trickett’s hinder or help large government IT projects move forward?
I don’t have the answer, but someone out there must!
HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) appears to have a very different view of how the IR35 tax avoidance reforms are affecting the public sector compared to many of the IT contractors Computer Weekly regularly speaks to.
Over the course of the past 12 months or so, we’ve fielded tip-offs and reports from sources about IT contractors leaving projects and departments in their droves, after having their engagements re-classified as “inside IR35” by the public sector bodies they work for.
Receiving this classification means contractors must be taxed in the same way as permanent employees (by making PAYE and National Insurance contributions). They are not, however, entitled to receive paid holiday, sick pay or many of the other benefits salaried workers are often entitled to.
As you can see from Computer Weekly’s exhaustive reporting of the IR35 reforms, the stories all stand up. We wouldn’t publish them if they didn’t.
Assessing the IR35 evidence
Invariably, when we’ve approached HMRC for a response to these stories, they’ve sent over the same canned comment time and again, which never quite addresses the questions or claims we put to them directly.
“Public sector organisations and contractors are free to work with each other in a manner that suits their circumstances, but it’s fair that two people doing the same job should pay the same taxes. These reforms will help ensure that happens,” the statement would read.
Concluding with the phrase, “Like all tax changes, we are monitoring their effect to make sure they work effectively and fairly.”
Recently, though, the tone of the comments we’ve received from HMRC have become more dismissive, with the organisation now taken to claiming there is “no evidence” of IR35 causing contractors to leave the public sector or that it is harming the delivery of IT projects.
This is despite our reports about contractors leaving the Home Office, the UK Hydrographic Office, and even HMRC itself for IR35-related reasons.
There has also been huge amounts of feedback from organisations, such as the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE), about people leaving the public sector since the reforms came into force in April 2017. But, for whatever reason, HMRC does not seem to recognise it.
The reasons for this are the subject to fierce debate within the IT contractor community, with some stakeholders accusing HMRC of trying to “fit the facts to suit its own agenda”, while others think the organisation is simply too far removed from the situation to get an accurate view of the day-to-day impacts these reforms are having.
And that’s just some of the more polite assertions.
These debates are now spilling into the public domain, following a row between HMRC and contributors to the IR35 Forum.
The Forum meet on a quarterly basis to discuss the how the tax avoidance legislation is affecting contractors and taxpayers, with representatives from HMRC, IPSE and other trade bodies and stakeholders all invited to share their feedback and insights.
At the moment, how HMRC has chosen to represent the discussion that took place during the group’s latest meeting on 17 July 2017 is a matter of dispute, with several contributors complaining the published minutes do not accurately reflect what was talked about.
The matter of the minutes
While a few quibbles over the minutes of a meeting might not sound all that interesting, the fact of the matter is the get-together in question is the first this group has held since reforms came into force on 6 April 2017.
For anyone wanting to assess how well (or not) the implementation of the reforms has gone during its first three months, these minutes are likely to be their first port of call.
Therefore, attendees fear anyone reading them would conclude the rollout has been a largely positive experience for all concerned, when that is not quite the case.
For example, there were anecdotal accounts shared during the meeting about contractors leaving the public sector over IR35 and the detrimental impact this is having on productivity. You wouldn’t necessarily know that, though, from reading the minutes in their current form.
What the minutes do state is that, “HMRC has seen no evidence of significant impact on attrition rates of contractors,” as a result of the IR35 reforms, but who’s to say that is true of everybody else?
With this in mind, HMRC has now offered to update the minutes from the meeting with additional feedback from those who attended, after contributors complained they were published without their approval.
It, of course, remains to be seen if the amended version will feature a wider range of viewpoints and perspectives on how IR35 is affecting the public sector, but – if not – it is fair to assume we’ll see more organisations calling HMRC out on it, if they don’t.
On the face of it
In the meantime, HMRC’s “no evidence” statement could be interpreted as an outright denial by HMRC that contractor “attrition rates” have soared since the IR35 reforms came into effect.
But no “significant impact” is not the same as stating “no impact at all”, and focusing purely on contractor churn as a measure of how the reforms have impacted on the public sector doesn’t really tell you anything.
All it says is the number of contractors entering and exiting the public sector as a whole is (more or less) balancing out. So, for every person who leaves, another person joins, but that doesn’t mean – in any respect – it’s a like-for-like replacement that’s taken place.
The term contractor is a cover-all for a huge variety of public sector positions, ranging from locum doctors and social workers to software engineers and IT project managers, and it not immediately clear if HMRC’s attrition rate calculations distinguish between them in any way.
For example, if a contractor performing an IT-related role leaves the public sector, but an agency nurse joins, there will be no change in attrition rate, right?
Measuring the attrition rate tells you nothing about how much extra money public sector organisations may have to shell out now to replace the people who have hot-footed it over to the private sector, where (for the time being, at least) the IR35 reforms are yet to rollout.
Upping rates and downsizing travel
Some public sector IT contractors, ruled to be working inside IR35, are known to have upped their daily pay rates to cover the fact they now liable to make PAYE and National Insurance contributions.
It is fair to assume the cost of the IT project they are working on could rise on the back of this, which may prompt the department overseeing it to cut the number of people working on it to balance the books. This, in turn, could have implications for when it gets delivered. But, you wouldn’t know that by looking at the attrition rate.
Computer Weekly has also heard anecdotal accounts of IT contractors who, where no increase in day rate can be agreed, are pushing back by opting out of engagements considered that require them to travel long distances.
It is hard to say exactly how prevalent this attitude is within the IT contractor community, but could cause additional headaches for IT managers already struggling to source people with skills and expertise that are in high demand.
Sit up and take notice
What all this serves to highlight is that there are many ways to measure how big an impact the IR35 reforms have had on public sector IT contractors, and how we define these impacts (positive/negative) will vary from stakeholder-to-stakeholder.
This is why it is so important to ensure as wide a range of viewpoints as possible are included and retained for posterity so whoever gets to decide whether the public sector IR35 reforms have been a success or not can factor in every take on the situation.
Should the public sector IR35 rollout be considered a success, this is likely to strengthen the case for extending the reforms to the private sector as well, potentially affecting thousands of businesses who rely on contractors there too.
Again, this is why it is important that as much evidence as possible about the impact of public sector reforms is properly recorded, and why the anecdotal accounts of those directly affected cannot afford to be ignored.
It’s been a long time coming, but it seems like the tide is finally changing among government departments. For years, critics have been complaining to no avail about the siloed nature of the civil service and its impact on delivering digital services to citizens.
The government’s transformation strategy, published earlier this year promised a revolution by overhauling te civil service through a series of measures such joining up back-office functions and improving IT. However, the question remained: did civil servants want this too?
Some are already beginning to lead the way and beginning to collaborate- at least within their own departments. The Home Office decided last year to bring together its Digital (HOD) and Technology (HOT) units to broaden skills, create a standardised design approach, and integrate data across its activities. The move, CIO Sarah Wilkinson said, has meant the department now has more resources to apply to projects, and it doesn’t have two books of work for each project.
This week, both the Ministry of Justice (MoJ and the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) followed suit in a similar manner, by bringing their agencies’ IT teams together as one.
MoJ CIO Tom Read tweeted on Monday, welcoming digital and tech colleagues from MoJ agencies such as HM Prison & Probation Service, Office of the Public Guardian, CICA and the Legal Aid Agency to the department’s digital team.
Perhaps more interestingly though, on the same day, the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) IT team joined Defra’s digital team.
A Defra spokesperson told me this was a strategic move as part of the departments UnITy project, joining up back office functions such as IT across the Defra group.
“By joining up our back office functions, we’re reducing duplication, saving money and delivering more efficient services for everyone,” the spokesperson said.
The move is significant for several reasons, but mainly due to the, at times, “bad blood” between the RPA and Defra (as well as the rather fragile relationship with GDS), but also because this may signal a shift in the siloed ways of working in government. Whether this is a conscious decision across government, and we’ll see more of this soon is unknown, but it’s refreshing to see something finally beginning to change.
As I said before, the government’s transformation strategy is indeed an ambitious document, but the proof will always be in the pudding, and it seems we’re finally seeing some action.
Is this the first wave in a tsunami of change? Possibly not, but these incremental changes to culture across the civil service is what will make or break the success of the strategy.
It’s been a long time coming, but the document we’ve all been waiting for is finally here. The government transformation strategy, billed as one which will, according to Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer, “change the relationship between the government and the public”, is certainly ambitious.
With its five key areas: Transforming back-office tech, increasing skills, improving IT, better use of data and shared platforms, it’s a strong plan. There is no doubt that change needs to happen, and this document sets out a strong plan for delivery of these changes.
The proof is in the pudding
I don’t doubt the minister’s sincerity, when he said he wants to see a revolution, but does the rest of the civil service?
While the strategy promises to change the relationship between the citizen and the state, a first port of call should really be changing civil servants’ view of digital. We’ve heard it all before: “digital transformation”, “culture change”, “shared services”, “developing skills”. The success of the ambitious goals set out in the strategy is so incredible dependent on the civil service as a whole being 100% in on the journey.
Having civil servants on board with digital transformation is by no means a new thought. The Government Digital Service (GDS), has been relentless in its effort to get departments involved and interested in digital projects with varying success rates.
It’s no secret that there has been mounting tension between GDS and some of the large departments. In fact, for the first time, Gummer admitted that strained relations have made it difficult to move forward. However, he says things are now getting better and they are having “almost weekly meetings” with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) which has been one of the more resistant departments to the involvement of GDS.
Cunnington also plans to open four locations for his digital academy – a civil servant training initiative he launched in the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and brought with him to GDS.
But the inertia amongst civil servants isn’t going to go away overnight. There are decades of working in silos and departmental structures. Quite frankly, most civil servants probably don’t see the need for change, and a transformation strategy isn’t going to suddenly revolutionise the way they feel. Yes- it promises to change the way departments work, and upskill their staff, but how this translates in real life remains to be seen.
It’s not necessarily a criticism of the strategy itself. The document makes lots of sense, and is thorough in its statements. But I am left with the feeling that we’ve heard it all before. Something is missing, whether it’s a true drive, or the lack of properly measurable targets, I don’t know.
The Digital Economy Bill’s data sharing code of practice aims to clarify what it means by data sharing and when it should be done, but full transparency is still lacking.
Experts also criticised the government for failing to publish the code of practice the Bill is referring to.
The aim of the bill is to make the UK “a place where technology ceaselessly transforms the economy, society and government”; with one of its key commitments focusing on the sharing of publicly held data sets “to improve service delivery while maintaining safeguards on privacy”.
One of the main criticisms, echoed by several experts, was that the bill failed to include a definition of what data sharing means.
The code of practice defines data sharing in three ways: a reciprocal exchange of data, one or more organisations providing data to a third party and a number of organisations pooling information and making it available to each other.
The modern version of data sharing
In his written evidence to the committee ahead of last month’s hearing, Jerry Fishenden co-chair of the Cabinet Office’s Privacy and Consumer Advisory Group, said the bill seems “to imply an approach to ‘data sharing’ modelled on the era of filing cabinets and photocopiers when the only way to make data available to others was to send them a duplicate physical copy”.
“Modern technology has rendered the need for such literal ‘data sharing’ obsolete: data can now be used without copying it to others and without compromising security and privacy,” he said.
The code aims to address this issue and points out that while in the past, data sharing “has commonly involved bulk data transfers within and between public authorities”, new technology has impacted data sharing.
“APIs allow applications and their datasets to interact with each other across organisational and geographical boundaries,” the code said.
“This allows public authorities to identify or verify eligibility for services and other objectives for which data needs to be shared through less intrusive methods, such as running binary checks against one or more datasets.”
While exactly what data sharing practices are currently in place in government is, in the words of former GDS chief Mike Bracken “opaque at best”, the code of practice recognises that as a transition is being made between old and new approaches to data sharing.
“The legislation is intended to support the range of different approaches to data sharing and as such does not specify the use of a particular technology or a specific approach to be used in terms of the practicalities of transfer.”
Transparency still needs improvement
While the bill does clarify what it means by data sharing, it is still fairly vague on safeguards and transparency on how proposals to share data fits in in with the government’s policy that citizens control their own data.
However, it does state that data sharing arrangements “cannot be established for purposes which are to the detriment of the individual or household”.
What exactly it means by this is difficult to gage, and will likely do little to alleviate fears among the public. As previously pointed out, one of the reasons why it’s so important to be clear on data sharing arrangements is that the government has a long way to go in building public trust- as seen by the Care.data debacle.
One of the programme’s criticisms was that the sharing arrangements were not explained in a way the public would understand. Very few may expect a code of practice to be written in “plain language”, but with the bill being so vague, it’s difficult to see how the public will be reassured by this statement.
The code of practice should however be commended, because it includes a checklist on why, what and how to share- presumably useful to organisations not sure on how to proceed.
So does the code do enough to clarify? It most definitely provides a significant amount of detail that was missing from the bill itself, which is a positive step in the right direction.
However, should the government want to make changes such as tightening or extending its data sharing regime, it won’t require changes to the bill itself- simply changing the definitions in the code. Now, what would that do to transparency and public trust…
Times are changing at the Government Digital Service (GDS). Not only is the organisation moving out of its home in Holborn, its power is also shifting.
Yesterday, GDS announced in a blog post that it is “changing the way things are done” when it comes to spending controls.
GDS’s power to control spend on government IT contracts has arguably been one of the most successful initiatives to date.
The measures, which were first introduced back in 2010, and reinforced by the then Cabinet office minister Francis Maude in 2012, mean any departments wanting to spend more than £100m on IT contracts would need approval from GDS.
Any new digital project also has to meet specific service assessment standards created by GDS before going live with a new service.
While the measures have been successful, they have most certainly not been everyone’s cup of tea. HMRC for example, decided to ignore the assessment standards when it went live with its beta version of personal tax accounts despite failing the GDS assessment.
Ever since Kevin Cunnington was appointed director general of GDS, several people have speculated that spending controls may be next on the list to change, and even end up being managed outside the organisation.
While the GDS blog post doesn’t give away as much detail as one would like, it certainly confirms that changes to spending controls are next on the agenda.
GDS argues that when the controls were introduced “they acted as a shock to the system” and helped government reduce spend. But it adds that in its current form, “government and its capability today is much different”.
More power to departments?
The details on how spending controls will change is still unclear. But GDS does say it wants to encourage collaboration and engagement across government through “communities of practice”, bringing together people “managing governance and financial decisions on technology from across government into one room to test how the changes we’re making would work for them”.
Collaboration has been a recurring motto at GDS and encouraging this is nothing new, but it’s no secret that civil service chief executive John Manzoni is keen on giving more power to departments, and there have long been hints that GDS will begin to step back from developing digital systems across government and rather “support departments” in doing so themselves.
The government continues to point out that it isn’t going to break up GDS, but there is no denying that GDS in its current form is slowly fading.
Revelations on what the future will hold, will probably have to wait until the Government Digital Transformation Strategy comes out later this year. The question remains: has GDS run its course?
Yesterday saw the departure of another senior figure at the Government Digital Service (GDS) as Gov.uk Verify director Janet Hughes announced she is leaving.
The news, which came only weeks after GDS boss Stephen Foreshew-Cain announced he was leaving government, is likely to cause speculation around the future of the organisation. Sounds familiar? That’s because it is.
It’s only been a year since the shock-departure of the then GDS boss Mike Bracken, which got the rumour mill going at full speed. Following his departure, a series of senior GDS leaders followed him out the door. Although this was billed as part of a “natural change”, it did little to stop people in and outside of government wondering about the future of digital government.
With Hughes following on, so shortly after Foreshew-Cain’s departure, the question is will there be more adieus to come?
GDS mass exodus ahead?
If one is to believe the rumour mill, Foreshew-Cain’s departure was unexpected, and as one government source put it, he was “stabbed in the back”. His replacement, Kevin Cunnington, formerly the director of business transformation at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was brought in to ease tensions between departments and GDS, according to government sources.
Ahead of the announcement, sources also suggested this may lead to several senior GDS figures questioning their own future in the department- cue Hughes’s exit.
As our editor in chief Bryan Glick has already pointed out, GDS’s future is far from secure. Not the least because civil service chief executive has never been a big believer in Government as a platform, or that GDS should deliver services- he believes digital government is best delivered through departments.
Although Cabinet Office has reiterated time and time again that GDS is not going to be broken up, a future continuing on the same path is hard to imagine, which leads me nicely on to my next point: Gov.uk Verify.
Verify’s future looks bleak
The government’s identity assurance service has been a controversial topic. The service, which aims to become the standard way of proving your identity, not just in central government, but across all public services and beyond, went live earlier this year.
Hughes, who led the creation and deployment of the service, has huge ambitions for the programme, and even envisions it being used for people opening bank accounts, checking their health records or booking a flight.
However, without her driving force behind it, the programme could easily falter, especially as both the DWP and HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) are not overly keen on Verify and want to develop their own versions of the system- should one believe the rumour mill. In fact, according to sources, HMRC is already developing its own version of both Verify and Gov.uk Notify.
So what does the future of GDS hold? Of course, the Cabinet Office will continue to tell the public that there won’t be a dismantling or break up of the organisation. One can also not deny that GDS received significant funding in last year’s spending review. The house of cards may still be standing, but for how long?
While central government is increasingly moving away from outsourcing deals with single suppliers with a clear view of creating agile services that respond to the changing needs of both government and the public, the picture is very different in some local authorities
Earlier this week, I reported on the news that Scottish Borders Council has signed a £92m contract with CGI. While the deal will bring 200 new jobs in the area– great news for locals— it’s also a 13 year contract with a single supplier.
But what struck me the most, was council leader David Parker’s comment that it was a landmark deal that would “offer a once in a generation transformational opportunity”.
Should IT contracts really be a “once in a generation” event?
3 years is a very long time in a digital world that’s changing quicker than most can keep up with. What is the likelihood of the council’s requirements being the same in 13 years’ time?
Central government has acknowledged that many existing outsourcing deals have proved bad for taxpayers but while government departments such as HM Revenue & Customs, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Work and Pensions have, or are in the middle of, moving away from large outsourcing deals, outsourcing is far from dead.
In fact, a survey by Nelson Hall for Arvato, published in February 2016, showed that there was £5.67bn worth of deals across the UK public and private sector in 2015 with a 26% increase in public sector spending compared to 2014, reaching £3.8bn.
Scottish Borders isn’t the only one preferring to go down the outsourcing route. In August 2015, City of Edinburgh Council signed a seven year, £186m outsourcing deal with CGI. In September, Burnley council signed a 10 year contract with Liberata in a bid to save money, and in October, Gloucester City Council extended its outsourcing deal with Civica until 2021.
Despite government targets for councils to increase spend with SMEs, the number of local authorities signing deals with smaller companies remains relatively low. If fact, in the North of England, a survey found that more than half of councils spent nothing with SME IT suppliers and 85% had no plans of increasing spend with SMEs.
Of course there are those that do it differently. Cornwall Council finally got the green light to bring its IT back in-house after its botched outsourcing deal with BT, and Adur and Worthing Councils have decided to buy its own, low-code government-as-a-platform. Local authorities get a hard time and are often left on their own to figure things out.
Support from the centre is limited and with chancellor George Osborne announcing in yesterday’s budget that by the end of this parliament, 100% of local government resources will come from local government, it becomes increasingly important to get technology right.
They are stretched to the limit, and although most realise they must embrace digital transformation, tight cost-cutting targets mean some find outsourcing the best way to do that. But what happens in two years, when the long-lasting contract doesn’t seem to fit in with what you need? In five years? In ten years?
While not all outsourcing deals are bad, and many outsourcing suppliers are both innovative and agile, one day, I would really like to never again hear the phrase “once in a generation” and IT contracts in the same sentence.
While the Government Digital Service’s (GDS) annual Sprint conference showed that there is still great enthusiasm and drive for getting digital “right” across Whitehall, this year’s event lacked a crucial element.
Without relying too heavily on clichés:the devil is in the detail, and the detail was what I found most lacking.
Sprint 16 did have some new announcements, such as Matt Hancock telling Computer Weekly about the launch of a Digital Leadership Academy, and announcing the work on creating open data sources, or “canonical registers”, ensuring data is stored once, and kept up to date centrally.
And GDS boss Stephen Foreshew-Cain re-iterated the point that GDS, and digital transformation across government , is moving towards a model of increased shared responsibility by telling the audience “we won’t build them all,” and rather provide the support to make sure the right tools get built.
This point, however, was already signalled heavily last autumn by the now newly-appointed deputy chief technology officer, Andy Beale, saying that GDS would be in “a different mode” and that the future of GDS lies in a “more collegiate and inclusive way of working”.
Previous Sprint events have usually given a very clear picture of exactly what and how GDS plans to do over the next year. And a strategy, or detailed plans on its delivery of a digital government, was certainly what was expected.
In October last year, parliamentary secretary George Bridges told the House of Lords that GDS would announce its strategy going forward by Christmas 2015.
“Plans will be announced before Christmas that will set out our strategy,” he said.
Christmas came and went without any further clarification and Computer Weekly got clear signals from several Whitehall sources that a strategy was most likely to be announced at Sprint 16.
The centre’s detailed plans are not the only ones missing. Last month, civil service chief exec John Manzoni told the Public Accounts Committee that single departmental plans, likely to provide more detail on each department’s digital strategy, were due to be published on 22 January. Fast forward a month and no plans have been made public.
The delay setting out clear plans begs the question of why. The most likely answer, although this is merely speculative, is that GDS is still working out how to spend its £450m budget, generously handed to them by George Osborne as part of the autumn spending review.
As revealed by Computer Weekly last year, GDS plans £3.5bn in efficiency savings on the back of its budget. As far as my understanding goes, the three core components that budget will be spent on are Government as a platform (GaaP), Common Technology Services (CTS) and the identity verification scheme Verify.
As previously reported, GDS aims for £1.3bn in savings from the GaaP programme, and £1.1bn in savings each from CTS and Verify. Should GDS accomplish these savings, it will certainly be a significant feat.
Getting this right is hugely important, not just because there are plenty of taxpayer’s money involved, but because GDS can’t afford to fail. If we are to have the digital revolution that’s so often talked about, Whitehall needs to lead the way.
In order to get people on board and to drive the culture change, both the public and departments need to know exactly what, when and how GDS plans to do this.
I for one, am waiting in suspense to seeing more a detailed strategy from the centre.