Everything you need to know about GDS

How did GDS start, and how is it driving government digital transformation?

The Government Digital Service (GDS) is a government arm founded in 2011 tasked with standardising the technological advancements of the major departments and driving their digital transformation. It describes itself as 'a centre of excellence in digital, technology and data' and works with other departments to build platforms, standards and services.

One of its shining achievements is the Gov.uk website which acts as an all-encompassing hub for government-related information and has gone from an alpha build created in 10 weeks to a critical component of the national digital infrastructure.

On the site, users can find many of the application forms and services that many UK residents require at various stages of their lives. HMRC also resides on the site where users can make changes to their employment status and file self-assessment tax returns.

Aside from new platforms and services, internally the GDS has overhauled the way data is used and exchanged within government departments. It now holds data in canonical registers which government workers can access through APIs, a process that streamlines the accessibility of data for use in departmental analyses and the creation of digital services.

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It does more than websites, it drives total digital transformation. The government's flagship Verify service was the work of the GDS, a service which offers users a secure way to identify who they are online, although a string of reports suggests that perhaps it shouldn't be celebrated too heavily.

People involved in interacting with the government no longer, in most cases, have to complete forms using pen and paper. Instead, users can just find the appropriate services on the relevant section of the government's website.

GDS: What does it do?

Employing more than 500 people, Holborn-based GDS is part of the Cabinet Office and supports the modernisation of central government's external and internal IT.

That means it helps departments turn pen-and-paper public services like renewing your tax disc into services people can complete online. It also means GDS helps departments migrate off expensive, monolithic IT systems with one large provider, instead of sharing out an IT contract among smaller, more agile providers.

GDS is responsible for increasing the number of digitally skilled workers within government departments (and its own team), thereby reducing its reliance on expensive contractors. It also has a hand in developing the government's wider digital strategy.

GDS: When did it start and why?

Created in 2011, GDS was tasked with actioning the central points of a 2010 report aimed at encouraging government departments to take a 'digital by default' approach to public services.

Former chief Mike Bracken was in charge at the time, and Francis Maude was the minister of the Cabinet Office. Under their oversight, GDS started by taking a somewhat forceful, direct approach to achieve its aims, forcing departments to accept spend controls on their IT budgets and leading from the front to dramatically alter how Whitehall used and thought of technology.

The goals were clear from the start - making government services more accessible to the general public and reducing government outlay on IT. But the approach appears to have led rapidly to savings, with GDS recording led to 1.7 billion savings in 2014/15, up from 891 million two years previously.

However, in recent years GDS has seen many changes in leadership that have caused some to question the expertise of the people at the top, and how this regular change could impact its strategy.

In February 2017, the minister for the Cabinet Office was Ben Gummer, who replaced Matt Hancock in the summer of 2016. A year later he was voted out in 2017's snap election and replaced by Damian Green, who resigned over breaching the ministerial code around Christmas 2017. Now the Cabinet Office minister is David Lidington.

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In early 2017, the GDS's head was Kevin Cunnington, but a year on, junior Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden took charge of GDS, with fellow minister Caroline Nokes holding the role briefly in between.

GDS: The tug of war over who runs it

As mentioned earlier, the GDS has undergone a series of leadership changes over the past couple of years. This has led to calls for responsibility for the organisation to be moved from the Cabinet Office to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

This is the idea of think tank Policy Exchange. So far, the DCMS has taken over data policy and governance functions from the GDS. It is thought that having the Cabinet Office in charge of some digital initiatives and DCMS leading on others is adding "organisational complexity".

The think tank said that lumping GDS in with the DCMS would bring more coherence to the digital body and a better focus on digital transformation both in the public and private sector.

The Policy Exchange's recommendations are for the DCMS to have "full leadership" of projects like the AI Sector Deal, a public-private partnership to fund innovation in machine learning.

GDS would be responsible for creating single digital government accounts for citizens over the next three years that list all the services a citizen is using, which departments have access to their data, and allow them to see the level of performance of their local public services, according to the think tank's report.

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