Responsibility for pushing IT and digital reforms in Whitehall should shift away from HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office to departments, according to Dr Sally Howes, digital lead at the National Audit Office (NAO).
Her suggestion reiterates a recent call by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) for the Government Digital Service “to increase its profile across government departments, rather than work primarily through the Cabinet Office”.
Howes warned that the next stage of digital transformation should be in the hands of the departments "as they are the ones who have to deliver the changes".
Last week the CBI said GDS should be expanded and beefed up, with a remit of ensuring all public services are online by 2020.
Others have also been calling for the government to be more ambitious in its plans to digitise public services. In September grassroots political group Labour Digital said that the government should commit to digitise 150 of its highest volume transactional services by 2020.
Speaking at the public sector enterprise ICT conference today, Howes said that there had been a “healthy debate” about the role of ICT and digital in government during the early days of the coalition government.
For example the government set up G-Cloud, the Government Digital Service (GDS), created targets for SME spending and introduced controls on the length, value and scope of contracts.
She added that “the Cabinet Office made a lot of commitments on how things would be different”, pointing to then government CIO Ian Watmore’s promise that “from then on there would be no such thing as an IT project”.
Howes acknowledged there was "some emerging good practice" of digital transformation in central government, and said some work to digitise government services was going well.
However she said that some of the 25 digital exemplars “have challenges” and that “there has been some difficulty over their governance”.
Last month it emerged that the government will release just 20 of the 25 redesigned public services it promised to have completed by March 2015.
Howes added that IT write-offs are still occurring in Whitehall despite the reforms of the last four years.
She also said there was a “lingering question” over whether plans to digitise government services were sufficiently in depth, mainstream and embedded across Whitehall.
Howes suggested that the government needs to focus more on having more suitable business models and adapting its behaviour and relationships, over just having “the right technology”.
She said: “It’s not just about new technology. Fundamentally this is about turning government into far more of a digital enterprise.”
The National Audit Office is currently conducting a follow-up study into Universal Credit, due to be published imminently.