The Government Digital Service (GDS) has announced plans to develop a GOV.UK mobile app to help citizens access the online portal. It comes two years after former Duchy of Lancaster Steve Barclay made a similar announcement about an app which was due to be delivered by the end of 2022 and has yet to come to fruition. Experts have questioned whether a dedicated mobile app for government services is even necessary.
The announcement was made on GDS’ blog this week as part of a wider piece on the department’s strategy for the ‘online home of government information and services’. Written by Chris Bellamy, director of GOV.UK, the blog post focuses on how user experience and ‘growth’ underpins the strategy until 2025.
Ballamy writes that there are nine programme priorities, the top one being the development of a GOV.UK app. Others include exploring the use of emerging technologies to help users of GOV.UK, developing a presence on social media channels such as YouTube and improving user experience around specific, targeted journeys.
Plans for an app were announced back in 2021 by Steve Barclay, then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Tech Monitor was told by the Cabinet Office at the time that the project was still going through a spending review and was expected to launch by the end of 2022.
However, the latest iteration of the app doesn’t currently have a hard deadline, with Bellamy saying that a public roadmap will be updated on the blog in due course.
Does the government need a GOV.UK app
Developers posting on Twitter, and well-versed in the public sector landscape and app development, have questioned why GDS has prioritised developing a new app.
John Bourne, a product manager at the University of Bristol, tweeted he was interested to understand why an app would be a good idea, and whether it would deliver value for money.
An app? Interested to know more about why that’s a good idea and the expected ROI…— John Bourne (@johnbourne09) June 7, 2023
Robert Perry, head of research at Pickle Jar, commented – along with other professionals – that the choice to develop a GOV.UK app felt “odd” and asked why it was a top priority for the department. He also critiqued GDS’ decision to strive for growth.
Will Callaghan, product lead at LocalGov Drupal, a content management system targeted at local authorities, simply asked: “Sorry, why is GOV.UK developing an app?”
Consultants ‘working with GDS’ to figure out why users need a GOV.UK app
One response to Callaghan came from Martyn Evans, head of product at Unboxed Consultancy, who stated that the company was working with GDS to answer questions about why the app would be needed.
“[Unboxed] are working with GOV.UK to answer that question as we speak, Will,” he announced. “There may well be some good reasons to build an app… but we’re helping validate the thinking.”
He also said it was worth considering that “several government departments” were spinning out their own apps and that GOV.UK needed to provide guidelines on that.
According to Global Data, the Cabinet Office has spent £2.9m with Unboxed over the last ten years. This has been through the G-Cloud framework rather than Digital Outcomes and Specialists framework.
However, James Kemp, portfolio director of shared services for government at the Cabinet Office, tweeted that the idea of a mobile app had been “shot down” a decade ago.
“The consensus was that apps had to do something that couldn’t be done online in a web browser,” he wrote. “There were previously few use cases.”
Tech Monitor contacted the Cabinet Office requesting further information about the purpose of the app, but the government department declined to comment.
The decision to publish a list of priorities without further explanation or deadlines has been questioned by Matt Jukes, a product manager in the Department for Business and Trade. In a blog post about the new GDS priorities, Jukes says the department should embrace an open way of working.
“Each item in the list of nine should link to a post of its own providing the why,” Jukes says. “What is the problem they are solving? Why this, why now? I suspect this exists internally. Make it open.”
He adds that “publishing the blog post without having the updated roadmap ready to go live at the same time was a bit of a stumble”.
GOV.UK app vs One Login for Government – are they the same thing?
The Cabinet Office says the GOV.UK app that Barclay spoke of in 2021 is One Login for Government, the single sign-in service for public services currently in development.
However, a government announcement at the time described it as a new “one-stop service for GOV.UK”. It said the new app would help simplify how people would access online government services as well as allow users to securely access them.
The GOV.UK app was given a deadline of due to be up and running by the end of 2022, though at the time the Cabinet Office confirmed to Tech Monitor that a budget hadn’t been set.
One Login for Government, meanwhile, is being developed with consultancy Deloitte, and launched pilots in September 2022 for departments such as Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) to enable users to log into their services. However, according to the recent update on the product’s website, One Login is “still in the early stages” and remains in beta text.
Rob Anderson, research director of the public sector at Global Data, disputes that Barclay was purely talking about One Login in 2021. “Barclay may have conflated things but he definitely talked about a GOV.UK app,” he says.
The Cabinet Office described One Login for Government as “operational.” But Anderson says that, even if Barclay was talking about the authentication platform, it hasn’t met the 2022 deadline as it has yet to be rolled out on a large scale.
“Don’t see [GDS director of digital identity] Natalie Jones, or anyone else for that matter, blogging about the One Login service being ready for full-scale rollout,” he says.
Anderson also questions the need for a GOV.UK app. “I fail to see what has changed since Tom Loosemore wrote his blog ten years ago about why web apps are a better fit than mobile apps for the government,” he says.