The Government Digital Service (GDS) will have its remit extended to cover local authorities, confirming a promise made by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude earlier this year.
The expansion in GDS’ responsibility was made as part of the UK Budget announcements today (18 March 2015), but was hidden away as a single paragraph in the 124-page Budget Book, and as yet the Cabinet Office has not been able to provide further details.
The Budget Book said: “Budget 2015 announces that the digital ambition will extend beyond central government and arms-length bodies, to consider local services. HM Treasury, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Government Digital Service will collaborate with partners in local government, as the sector develops a set of proposals that will enable more customer-focused, digitally-enabled and efficient local services in time to inform future budget allocations.”
Relations – or the lack of them – between GDS and local government have been widely discussed in the past couple of years. Until now, GDS’s remit was specifically to deal with central government needs only.
Last month, Francis Maude have the first hint that the situation would change, when he told a House of Commons debate that digital support for councils was “a very high priority”.
Labour’s digital government review last year called for GDS’s remit to be extended to councils. The call was echoed last year by Socitm, the local government IT user group, which said a dedicated digital team for local government would be more effective at delivering digital transformation than existing voluntary programmes.
GDS had been criticised in some quarters for failing to engage with councils, but government chief technology officer Liam Maxwell said last December that it had never been part of GDS’s responsibilities. “We would love to help them; we provide patents, we provide structures, we provide the ability for them to do things, but I stress we don’t have a remit for local government,” he said.
The Local Government Association (LGA) welcomed the Budget announcement. “Councils are on the frontline of public services and help residents navigate and access a range of vital public services. Any commitment to greater digital collaboration to enable the public sector to join up more effectively around residents will help our communities,” said Peter Fleming, chairman of the LGA’s Improvement and Innovation Board.
“Councils are best placed to work with residents in shaping and designing digital solutions appropriate to local circumstances, so it is absolutely vital that we all work together and share our expertise and understanding of our customers. Councils understand and work closely with their residents and use digital technologies to find local solutions to different needs,” he said.
“To do this effectively, central government partners must be willing to share data with councils. This is increasingly important as we work to integrate health and social care and support communities to deal with changes to welfare reform. We need to work across the public sector to implement and share technology so we can support our residents and businesses more effectively and efficiently.”
Julian David, CEO of IT trade body TechUK, said the announcement puts further momentum behind digital initiatives in central and local public services. “This will be vital for meeting the Chancellor’s targets for efficiency savings as well as building world-class public services around the needs of the citizen,” he said.
Digital government in the Budget
Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced a number of other digital government initiatives in the Budget – putting the scrapping of annual tax returns in favour of digital tax accounts as one of his headline policies.
The HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) digital strategy published in September last year first unveiled a plan to introduce online personal tax accounts for individuals and businesses. But Osborne went a step further by announcing he will scrap annual tax returns, made possible by HMRC’s Real-Time Information (RTI) system that allows the department to collect tax information when employees are paid, instead of annually as used to be the case.
“Budget 2015 announces that the government will transform the tax system over the next Parliament by introducing digital tax accounts, removing the need for annual tax returns. By the end of the next Parliament over 50 million individuals and small businesses will be able to see and manage their tax affairs online,” said the Treasury’s Budget Book.
Gov.UK Verify – the online identity assurance system developed by GDS – will be rolled out across all central government. “Following a successful trial, the government will implement ‘Gov.uk Verify’ – a new way for people to prove their identity online when using government services – across central government,” said the Budget Book. Verify was launched in September last year, with plans for almost half a million people to be using it by April this year.
Early trials with farmers applying for rural support funds were problematic, but Verify was more successfully used on a limited basis during the online tax self-assessment process in January.
Criminal record checks
The budget also revealed plans for a digital service to speed up criminal record checks, and to provide APIs [application programming interfaces] to allow third-parties to offer checks on other platforms.
“The government will further improve and speedup the process of applying for criminal record checks by ensuring that the application process is digital by default and can be conducted online. The government will ensure that the process can be integrated into third party services including, as appropriate, sharing economy platforms, through an API,” said the Budget Book.
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