Everything you need to know about GDS

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

GDS: What has it achieved?

One of GDS's most notable achievements has been Gov.uk, a centralised web platform for all central government websites.

The 15-month project saw GDS close 685 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), which was devised by former chief Bracken. 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.

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Possibly GDS' most ambitious project to date is Gov.uk Verify, an identity assurance program aimed at combatting fraud and saving time and money. It hasn't shown many signs of success as of yet, but more on that later.

GDS: What will it achieve in the future?

In February 2017 GDS published the Government Transformation Strategy, a paper outlining what the government's digital ambitions are between 2017 and 2021.

While little was new, the strategy did set out some key aims for government technology and IT development over the four years. The biggest ones were as follows:

Verify

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. Jessica Figueras, chief analyst at research firm Kable, tells IT Pro that GDS will require "an absolutely enormous level of engagement" with local government to achieve that number.

"They are going to have to bring in lots of different sources of ID, sources like bank accounts, credit cards, all that sort of stuff," she adds. "It's going to be a really tough challenge to make and I would be amazed if they even get halfway to that."

As we said above, Verify has been quite the failure. Hopes were high when it was announced as it was touted as a cost and time-saving system that would also tackle fraud. Unfortunately, since its launch the service has consistently underperformed and failed to meet its targets. In July 2018, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) recommended that the service be scrapped as quickly as practicable.

Regardless, a Cabinet Office spokesperson told IT Pro that Verify is a world-leading project in its field and saving taxpayers money too.

Chief Data Officer (CDO)

The CDO role has become a lot more important under the new strategy. That's because the Digital Economy Bill proposes that the government can share citizen data across departments and other public bodies, a controversial measure that has received criticism from the House of Lords. The CDO would be responsible for making sure that this data sharing is done safely.

"[This] creates a need for a much stronger capability at the centre of government to look at data ethics data governance and how to manage these data sharing in a safe way so the role will become a lot more important," said Figueras.

Previously occupied by Bracken, the CDO role had no new name attached as of February 2017.

Skills retention and training

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.

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It's 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.

Ovum analyst Chris Pennell tells IT Pro that more skills will help GDS deliver the big goals of the transformation strategy.

He says: "The transfer of skills allows GDS to train the next generation of technologists in the toolsets and languages that they believe will deliver their vision of the future.

"In the short term GDS will need to build capacity if it is to train enough staff to deliver the wider objectives of the strategy in such a short time frame."

The focus on developing more internal skills is a result of the public sector's heavy reliance on contractors, says Kable's Figueras. HMRC is enforcing IR35 guidelines from April 2017 that stipulate that contractors working for one public sector organisation must be taxed as ordinary employees, meaning contractors will either leave to avoid paying more tax, or demand higher wages to compensate.

"Suddenly overnight it's become less attractive to work for government than the private sector," says Figueras. "We have already had walkouts from contract labour in certain organisations.

"Public sector bodies will have to make up for it in pay. That's much much more expensive than having employees, so the idea of growing your own from within is more attractive."

How will GDS's role change in future?

GDS has evolved from a driving force of digital dragging departments along with it, to a guiding hand helping departments achieve digital transformation. How will its role develop in the future?

Ovum's Pennell says: "GDS will continue to focus on its platform approach across certain services, but will leave the heavy lifting to departments, which is no bad thing.  I don't see GDS retrenching from the advisory position it has carved out in the short to medium term.  Longer term, much will depend on how successful the [skills] academy program is."

Kable's Figueras adds: "There was a view that either GDS was delivering everything itself or it would advise departments and become less important. That's not the case, it's always done both and will continue to do both, just in a less direct, less hands-on way now.

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"The style has changed and it's not necessarily that its powers have shrunk. For example, the spend controls process that probably antagonised the departments with GDS vetoing their proposals are still there. Now though, departments have planned to work within GDS policy, with the result you get for fewer rejections."

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