The Government Digital Service didn’t just make a website, they redesigned the way user interacted with Government through user journey maps, reducing unnecessary bureaucracy and “Transforming the relationship between citizen and state” as Matt Hancock (Cabinet Office) said. By removing the need for 320 separate government websites and merging them into one different domain they saved £3.5 billion in overall costs to the taxpayer since 2012. This set an example worldwide with the UK winning the best E-Government website and the UK’s open source codebase being implemented by GOVT.NZ and the US Digital Service.
The removal of the need to go to the Post Office to renew your tax disk or send off for, fill in and send back a pack of forms to renew your passport is really great. Government agencies such as the DVSA have really embraced the opportunity to go digital first with services allowing you to hire cars by proving your driving licence online and checking a vehicle’s history for free before you buy it just with the registration and manufacturer. Previously the DVSA had contracted out all of their work to Fujitsu for 15 years and after moving back in they’ve reworked all their customer-facing services in a more efficient way, showing that in house development really does work better.
The latest project that the GDS are working on is register creation, creating lists that other government platforms can be based upon and allowing services to share data in one system as opposed to hundreds of different ones around government such as open registers (such as open electoral), closed registers (such as land registry) and private ones (such as organ donor status). The process of researching, testing and then going back to the drawing board is all described on the blog and it’s great to see that process.
Unfortunately, not all of the government agrees that GDS is doing a good job, and would much rather it would be put back to the way it was before. The old head of GDS Stephen Foreshew-Cain was replaced by Kevin Cunningham (who wrote of £1.5 billion on the Universal Credit IT programme failure). According to inside rumours there was a ‘minor coup’ over summer and now there is a stand off between the DWP and HMRC who were amid their own transformation projects at the start of GDS and would like to see the agencies go back that way, which is a worry.
If GDS were to be dismantled, I think we’d see a return to the old ways of Government IT, contracted out for hundreds of millions of pounds more than the contracts are actually worth and providing less of a return on investment, it will also oust people at the service currently working in a more effective way that users actually like. I’ve followed the GDS block for the last three years and it’s been intriguing to see how they move from concept to production with care at each step, even moving to write ‘plain English’ to increase accessibility (even in HMRC to make the system actually understandable to the average reader) which are realistically not going to be developments you get when contracting to the lowest bidder.
The NHS are starting their own programme with a £4bn redevelopment programme following on and using GDS’ prototype system, the pushback they will likely face going digital by default across the entire of a disconnected health service is likely going to be huge though.