Public Services > Central Government

Delayed GDS strategy unveiled in wider Whitehall reform plan

Neil Merrett Published 09 February 2017

Government Transformation Strategy reaffirms many existing GDS commitments to data sharing, while stepping up use and scope of existing payment and ID platforms


The government’s delayed digital strategy will seek to appoint a single chief data officer to oversee ongoing Whitehall information sharing, while reaffirming commitment to expand use of the GOV.UK Verify identify assurance platform from 1.1 million people to about a third of UK adults by 2020.

Forming part of a wider Government Transformation Strategy document, the Cabinet Office has set out key aims for GDS’ work that includes broad commitments to data reform - guided by a new Data Advisory Board – as well as several core digital service focuses. 

This will include commitments to have 90% of passport applications completed online by 2020, a 75% response online to the National Census in 2021 and pushing a wider potential scope for its existing common platforms such as GOV.UK Verify and GOV.UK Pay.

The government had committed to releasing an already delayed strategy for the remit of GDS before Christmas, which was anticipated to detail aims for a £450m budget outlined in the 2015 Spending Review.  This has now been subsumed into a broader transformation plan for Whitehall.

Rob Anderson, principal analyst for central government with GlobalData Public Sector, said the aspirations within the transformation plan were laudable, but the strategy provided little new detail.

 “What is more concerning is the lack of detail in how GDS intends to achieve its goals,” he said.

“Already stretched and with departments facing a massive digital skills gap, how does the organisation hope to achieve in three years what it has failed to do in the last six?”

In defining the government’s ambitions for the next three years, Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer said the latest plans were designed to support a “revolution” in the delivery of public services.

“That is why we are today publishing our Government Transformation Strategy, outlining our commitment to reshape government by ensuring millions of people are able to access online the services they need, whenever they need. We will deliver these changes while driving efficiencies wherever possible, making considerable savings for the taxpayer,” he said.

“Only by transforming the relationship between the citizen and the state – so that the latter serves the former – will we deliver the Prime Minister’s commitment to build a country that works for everyone.”

In trying to realise these aims, Gummer committed to a huge increase in the number of individuals using GOV.UK Verify.  It is currently used by just over one million people, a figure that is intended to be expanded to 25 million accounts by the end of 2020.  Gummer claimed strategy this would be supported by a number of upcoming pilot projects working with authorities, as well as banks and the commercial sector, again building on efforts underway to look for potential functions to support local council operations.

The identity assurance platform is presently intended to offer access to medium to low level of assurance services for individual rather than business users.  Meanwhile, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) last month announced it was taking over responsibility for revamping the Government Gateway system that operates alongside Verify for this purpose. 

In replacing the Government Gateway, HMRC confirmed last month it would be designing an in-house replacement solution intended to provide secure access to services for “business, agent and individual customers” that could be expanded in time to other departments.

Although Government Gateway is not mentioned in the strategy document itself, GDS does commit itself to work with departments to build on Verify to allow transactions to be completed electronically.  

“We will also work across government to determine the best next steps for other forms of identity (such as verification of intermediaries and businesses) and which part of government would be best placed to lead on this,” said the strategy.

Government as a Platform

The strategy also sets out commitments to “build” on its Government as a Platform (GaaP) concept - first espoused by former GDS executive director Mike Bracken to design common tools and functions. These functions include ID assurance, payment and notification platforms that can be adopted by different departments.

Once envisaged to potentially provide dozens of common platforms alongside GOV.UK Verify, the Digital Marketplace and GOV.UK Pay, no fresh platforms were announced in the strategy.  However, the document does commit to greater reuse of platforms and components across government, supported, where possible, by a move towards adopting more common technology such as commodity hardware or cloud-based software instead of “building something that is needlessly government specific.”

“Common components and platforms will cover both citizen-facing services and internal public sector technology,” said the document. “We will work towards having a range of reusable components to make it quick, cheap and easy to assemble digital services. These will be a mixture of government-built components (both from departments and GDS) and common components that government can procure that are based around open standards.”

Gummer also outlined work to create a “fully digital real-time tax system” that has been ongoing under HMRC’s Making Tax Digital (MTD) strategy as part of aims to end the concept of an annual tax return by 2020. 

Just last month, parliament’s Treasury committee urged more extensive testing of the proposed digital tax systems, while backing a prolonged rollout of all new technology beyond the current 2020 target to ensure industry and business owners are not adversely affected.

The Government has so far agreed to more extensive testing of the MTD plans, with further reviews expected of this implementation process and timeline.

Data push

Underpinning the government’s strategy to push for the use of more common and open systems will be efforts to build data registers that can provide up to date, secure information for used by different government bodies.  These efforts will be overseen by a single Whitehall chief data officer.

Having previously been managed by Mike Bracken during his tenure of GDS, Whitehall most recently employed Paul Maltby to lead on cross-government information management initiatives under the tile of director of data.  However, Maltby’s contract was not extended beyond the New Year, leaving the position vacant.

It is understood that a candidate for the chief data officer position has not been selected at present, with no timeline for when the role may be appointed. Alongside the position, a Data Advisory Board is to be established to align efforts to implement best practice for sharing information and provide departments with guidance around collection, storage, access and analysis.

This will target longstanding aims to create an increased number of data infrastructure registers to create authoritative information lists used once across government that are properly secured.

This work, which was a key focus of both Bracken and Maltby’s time leading data initiatives in Whitehall, aims to allow departments to share data without requiring “complex bipartisan arrangements”.

The Digital Economy bill, currently undergoing parliamentary scrutiny, seeks to define sharing arrangements for government-held data.  However, the proposed legislation is facing criticism from some MPs, peers and pressure groups over privacy concerns that could ultimately set back the bill being passed in its current form.

The Government Transformation Strategy notes aims to streamline how citizens can view, and potentially correct information held about them when using public services. 

It also additionally commits to keeping personal and sensitive data secure by introducing across government common security standards, while considering recommendations of National Data Guardian Dame Fiona Caldicott to implement a new model for consent to share health care information.

There aims for government data management will depend on the powers passed within the Digital Economy bill, with parliament already questioning the broadness of provisions around how personal data may be copied and tracked between departments.

One privacy campaign group has warned this week that the government should be urged to drop an entire section of the bill that it argues will undo "slow, but painful" progress made by health authorities to ensure more transparency and patient control of information.

Related articles:

Privacy groups urge dropping entire Digital Economy Bill data clause

HMRC readies replacement Government Gateway system for 2018

GDS strategy release expected to face Christmas delay

Maltby to leave Government Digital Service

Kevin Cunnington promises "no break up of GDS"

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