Give DCMS responsibility for GDS, urges think tank

Former Cabinet Office minister says "it's time to reboot" government digital efforts

Photograph of Whitehall in the daytime

Responsibility for the UK government's technology initiatives should be moved wholesale to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, according to a major think tank.

Whitehall should shift the Government Digital Service (GDS), which currently operates under the oversight of the Cabinet Office, into DCMS, urged a report by think tank Policy Exchange.

DCMS has already stripped GDS of its data policy and governance functions, tucking both under its wing over Easter.

But having the Cabinet Office in charge of some digital initiatives and DCMS leading on others which "adds organisational complexity, diffuses accountability and slows the overall progress of transformation" the think tank contends, adding that DCMS's sport portfolio should be moved to the Department of Health.

"Bringing all of GDS together into DCMS would help create a more coherent Department for Digital and Culture, able to focus on all aspects of digital transformation across the public and private sector," its report, called The Smart State, reads.

GDS started in 2011 with a remit to digitise government's public services, improving access for millions of people. It centralised government body websites under Gov.uk and digitised services such as passport renewals, driving licence applications and registering to vote.

Led by Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister at the time, and GDS chief Mike Bracken, GDS also spearheaded concepts like using smaller suppliers for IT contracts and re-using digital services built in-house (government-as-a-platform) to reduce costly duplication of services.

Since their departures, however, GDS has moved into a more advisory role, with departments leading on their own digital initiatives.

Writing the foreword to yesterday's report, Maude said: "There are worrying signs that in recent years progress has slipped. Without constant pressure from the centre, the natural tendency in any large organisation is for individual departments to slip back into defensive isolation.

"Government-as-a-platform will not happen without clear direction from the top. It is time to reboot. Government 2.0 is overdue."

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

GDS would also be tasked with creating single digital government accounts for citizens over the next three years that list all the services a citizen is using, who has access to their data, and allow them to see the level of performance of their local public services.

The concept of digital IDs is already being explored by GDS with the Verify project, which it aims to bring to 25 million people by 2020, according to its Government Transformation Strategy.

But other departments, including HMRC, are developing their own identity tools in tandem.

Policy Exchange would like to hand GDS more power over departments, suggesting that it score departments' progress on delivering digital transformation objectives, and work with the government's chief data officer to open up public data through common standards.

It also recommends that GDS work with the UK data watchdog - the Information Commissioner's Office, and the new Centre for Data Ethics on creating 'privacy by default' guidelines for public bodies that handle people's personal data.

IT Pro has approached the Cabinet Office and DCMS for comment.

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