Government Digital Service Faces NAO Review Over ‘Failures’

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The spending watchdog is to probe GDS following ‘senior management failures’ over a Defra project last year

The National Audit Office (NAO) is to carry out a review of the Government Digital Service (GDS) following the central government service’s withdrawal from a major Rural Payments Agency (RPA) IT project last year.

“The NAO will shortly be undertaking a review of GDS’s achievements and the challenges it faces, looking in particular at whether the centre of government is supporting better use of technology and business transformation in government,” the office stated.

CAP payment programme

houses of parliamentThe study, due next spring, is intended to examine whether the service’s role is clearly understood, how it is changing, the progress made by GDS in advancing government services since it was formed in 2011 and whether it is well-placed to support future digital change projects.

The NAO revealed its planned review in a report on the progress of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) Delivery scheme, which makes payments to assist farmers.

GDS withdrew from an IT project intended to improve the programme in March 2015 following what the NAO described as “senior management failures” with the RPA, GDS and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) “not working together effectively, and not being able to resolve differences in strategic priorities and visions”.

The management problems led to IT troubles including the failure of an online application system, leading to a return to paper applications, and data control issues that made it difficult for the RPA to maintain its payment record.

The project’s costs had increased by 40 percent from an initial £154 million to £215 million.

‘Inappropriate behaviour’

Previous NAO reports cited “inappropriate behaviour” by senior figures at GDS and the RPA as a significant factor in GDS’ withdrawal, and said GDS did not provide the support Defra needed.

In its latest study the NAO indicated the RPA had returned to a more familiar development and deployment cycle for the system rather than the continuous deployment approach that had been advocated by GDS, based on the current norm for commercial cloud-based applications.

“The RPA has continued developing the IT environment without further significant involvement of GDS,” the NAO said in the report.

The office added that “cultural changes are being made” as a result of its recommendation that Defra “review its approach to tackling serious failures of management and put in place measures to stop this ever happening again”.

GDS has continued to work with Defra on other projects and “its working relationship with GDS has recently been more constructive”, the NAO said.

The NAO has been critical of GDS in the past, saying government departments were not making the savings they expected by adopting services under GDS’ strategy, and saying the method used by GDS to calculate savings was inconsistent.

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