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Gov websites' value not at all clear despite trimming

Beancounters unconvinced on greatness of cyber-Whitehall

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The government has failed to routinely measure the benefits of its main portals - the Government Gateway, Directgov and Business.gov - which together have cost £90.3m over the past three years, says the National Audit Office (NAO).

In its report titled Digital Britain One: Shared infrastructure and services for government online, the spending watchdog accuses the government of making investment decisions without sufficient information on costs and benefits.

In 2005 the government began converging online services on Directgov and Business.gov in an effort to reduce its public service websites, of which there were more than 2,500. Since 2006 1,526 government websites have closed.

The NAO found only one instance where the government had estimated the benefits of its investment in online services. Business.gov, which provides government information for businesses, was reported to have saved business £21 for every £1 spent in 2010-11.

Although there are likely benefits to providing business information in one location, the NAO found that it was not possible to say how much of this benefit would have been delivered anyway, if the information had only been available from multiple websites.

The annual cost of Business.gov was between 22% and 26% higher than Directgov over the past three years. But the two services have different types of content and operating models, and Business.gov has outsourced much more of its operation than Directgov, under a contract with Serco. The NAO says it has no basis for comparing value for money, however.

The report calls on the Government Digital Service (GDS) to "build its financial and management discipline" so that it can make informed decisions on the optimal use of online resources.

"The new GDS should ensure that the plans for the future, which it is already developing, including the new single domain, new solutions for identity assurance and policies related to digital service delivery, are fully integrated and managed as part of a comprehensive programme," it says.

It is important the GDS has the authority to implement policy and works closely with departments, not all of which have complied with the government's policy to close websites.

The NAO found evidence of a persistent skills gap in government and says that the GDS must address this by developing a centre of technical excellence at the heart of the government's digital strategy.

It also found evidence of poor user experience with the Government Gateway, which was launched in 2001 to allow users to exchange personal information with government or make financial payments securely. It says these problems have damaged the reputation of Directgov and under current structures there is no mechanism to resolve this.

It calls on the Cabinet Office to work with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that the identity assurance services provided by the Government Gateway continue to be available during the transition to a new model and address the security and capacity challenges that Gateway faces.

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: "It is a good thing that people visited the two main government websites some 200m times last year. However, it's still unclear what benefits have been achieved and at what cost. We cannot conclude, therefore, that the taxpayer is securing value for money."

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