Minority Tory gov 'may step back' from risky IT projects

Whitehall street sign outside the Cabinet Office

The Government Digital Service (GDS) might step back from controversial IT projects under a minority Tory government, it is believed.

GDS has been a driving force for digital since its inception in 2011, but following the snap election's disastrous result for the Conservative Party, which has been forced to seek to form a minority government with an informal 'confidence and supply' deal with Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), it might not be quite as ambitious as it was previously.

"We have the same flavour of government as before but extremely weakened, which means that anything in the manifesto that's remotely controversial gets scaled back or jettisoned entirely," GlobalData's chief analyst for the public sector, Jessica Figueras, told IT Pro.

The Tories have been in talks with the DUP for over a week now with no sign of a deal, but the latter's 10 MPs would only give the government a slight majority in Parliament.

The resulting pressure from rival parties, with Labour picking up 32 new seats, could result in the government delaying or cancelling some risky public-facing IT projects to avoid political fallout.

"They will leave areas with the potential for short term disasters," Figueras said. "Take rural payments as the last digital disaster, that's the kind of project that no-one wants to see now."

GDS's initiative to digitise farmers' payments made by the Rural Payments Agency resulted in "dysfunctional and inappropriate behaviour" between three government bodies, according to the Public Account Committee's damning report last year, coupled with poor broadband coverage, that meant the scheme took too long to pay many farmers despite a 215 million spend that ran 40% over budget.

Benefit payments under the heavily-criticised Universal Credit IT rollout, digital passport renewals, and HMRC digital transactions are examples of potentially at-risk projects because of their citizen-facing nature, Figueras said.

The Cabinet Office declined to comment.

Ben Gummer's departure won't change anything

One of the biggest casualties of the election was Ben Gummer, the Cabinet Office minister and architect of the Tory manifesto. But Georgina O'Toole, chief analyst at TechMarketView, told IT Pro that his departure won't affect the direction of Whitehall digital transformation, which was set out in a strategy published in February.

"They are still the largest party so should still be able to influence the agenda. I don't believe Gummer had been a particularly strong driver of the issues. We just have to hope for strong leadership in a new cabinet," O'Toole said.

But calling Brexit a "distraction" from the digital agenda, she added: "Now we have the prospect of a longer period of uncertainty and confusion. That is likely to result in a bit more navel gazing before we get back on track. Once Brexit aims become clearer there is still the potential for some transformation to be accelerated."

Damian Green has since taken up the role of Cabinet Office minister, though it is unclear how much of his time he will dedicate to technology. A previous incumbent, Francis Maude, empowered GDS to step into departments and lead and shape their digital agendas, even approving expensive IT contracts. Subsequent chiefs in Matt Hancock (now minister for digital and culture) and Gummer have seen GDS take a more advisory role.

But O'Toole is still confident the Tories have the best approach to digital transformation within and outside Whitehall.

"The Conservatives had the best handle in their manifesto in technology and digital - both from an internal government perspective and from an impact of digital/technology advancement on UK society and the UK economy in the years ahead (issues around robotic process automation, etc.)," she said.

"Some of the manifesto tackled continuing issues of concern like getting a handle on data and attracting digital leadership skills into the public sector."