Editorial

Institute for Government fears a future British digital public sector is in doubt

Digitisation of UK public services is “happening too slowly” – and without a strong minister in charge, GDS won’t be able to drive digital improvements in a way that meets citizens’ expectations, warns the group

Posted 22 June 2017 by

The digitisation of public services in the UK is happening too slowly – and the body set up to help Whitehall get on board, the Government Digital Services, GDS, needs better support than it’s been getting if we want the job done.

This is the strong warning out of the Institute for Government (IfG) think tank, which has just published Improving the management of digital government to set out its concerns.

These include lack of political support and structural resistance, it seems.

For a start, the study says that appointing a Minister responsible for digital government would “help drive change and advance standards”, a side-swipe, perhaps, at the still confused state of who, if anyone, holds the mandate for government transformation in the wake of the confused result of #GE2017.

There’s also the pressing issue of the need to crack on and implement digital improvements that would make government cheaper, more effective and secure. IfG points to the recent NHS cyberattack as an example of the fragility in some systems being used in the public sector.

IfG also warns that the Government Digital Service (GDS), the Cabinet Office unit responsible for leading digital transformation of government, “faces resistance from many corners of Whitehall.” Without a strong minister in charge, GDS is not able to drive digital improvements in a way that meets citizens’ expectations, it believes, and while it has been effective at setting standards for digital government, “but these need to be improved and extended throughout the civil service and with IT contractors”, it warns.

Improving the management of digital government also makes several recommendations for both GDS and Whitehall departments on how they can work better together. These centre on the idea that government “needs to organise services around people’s needs and to urgently clarify which system citizens should use to securely identify themselves online”.

For Daniel Thornton, the IfG report author, “The recent cyberattack on the NHS shows that the Government has to urgently improve digital government, a Minister for digital government should be appointed. GDS’s standards have been effective, but need to be clarified and extended so that public services can be securely organised around citizens’ needs.”

Also needed:

  • GDS’s standards must be clarified, distinguished from “guidance”, and applied better in both centra government and more widely in the public sector
  • GDS needs to create a store for application programming interfaces (APIs) for the public sector so as to encourage reuse and supports the development of API standards
  • Government should urgently clarify the roles of GOV.UK Verify and the Government Gateway to spread the benefits of secure identity verification
  • The Treasury should work with GDS to consider which life events, such as registering a birth or selling a house, could benefit from new services, and fund their development
  • The Prime Minister should appoint a Minister for Digital Government as a priority.