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New thresholds for digital spending controls

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The Government Digital Service (GDS) has introduced a new spending control threshold of £100,000 for digital. For some specific areas of digital the threshold remains ZERO, including for websites, domain registration, mobile apps, digital transactions and ID assurance for the general public.

Approval for other digital spend under £100,000 has been delegated to the departmental Digital Leaders. No public commitment or expenditure should be made above these thresholds without prior approval from GDS.

For details read the section on spending controls in the GDS service design manual or see the letter dated 4 July 2013 from William Jordan, Director General  for the Efficiency and Reform Group at the Cabinet Office.

Since this guidance was issued we have met with colleagues from several arm’s-length bodies (ALBs), from GDS and from the Efficiency and Reform Group (ERG). This post will hopefully answer all the questions we’ve had so far and provide some additional guidance.

What we mean by ‘digital’

Digital has been defined as “any external-facing service delivered through the internet to citizens, businesses, civil society or non-government organisations”.

For reference, IT is now defined as mission IT systems, desktop infrastructure and back-office systems.

Who the digital controls apply to

Within health and care, the controls apply to the Department of Health and all its ALBs, as defined by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

This includes NHS England and the other NHS ALBs, e.g. NHS Blood and Transplant, but does not include the Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) or Commissioning Support Units (CSUs) or the local NHS.

What exactly falls under the zero threshold for digital spend

The Government Digital Service has several high-profile programmes of work including:

The zero spend threshold relates to these areas of work, in order to ensure that all of government is fully aligned on these priorities. Any spend within these areas will need to be approved by GDS, via the DH digital team.

1. Websites and domain registration

In summer 2012 departmental Digital Leaders were asked to put forward websites that should be considered for exemption from the single government website, GOV.UK. Some health ALBs were granted an exemption for their organisational website or for specific campaign or transactional websites that met the exemption criteria. All other websites are expected to transition on to GOV.UK by April 2014.

So there should not be more websites being built by government without an exemption from GOV.UK. If you want to develop a website on another domain e.g .nhs, .org,, or .com you will still need an exemption from GOV.UK.

A list of website exemptions can be found on the GDS blog. If you are aware of a health-related website funded by government that does not appear on this list, please speak to me (Alice Ainsworth) asap.

2. Mobile apps

The government has made its position on mobile apps clear, in that they can “rarely be justified”. The line is: “Stand-alone mobile apps will only be considered once the core web service works well on mobile devices, and if specifically agreed with the Cabinet Office”.

Approvals for spend are required for apps that already exist and need to be upgraded or redesigned , as well as apps developed by partner organisations. If you are within DH or an ALB and plan to fund or develop an app for a behaviour change campaign or another policy initiative please speak to the DH digital team at the earliest opportunity, and prior to submitting your advertising, communications and marketing case to ERG.

Where appropriate we will support the development of a mobile app but we, and GDS, will require you to provide the evidence of user need outlined in the apps guidance.

DH has previously funded a small number of mobile apps, some of which are now managed by Public Health England (PHE). These include the Change4life and smokefree apps.

3. Digital transactions

All government departments are expected to report on digital transactions data, which is then published to the Transactions Explorer tool.

The definition of a transaction used by GDS is a “two-way exchange of a physical or virtual good”.

Guidance in the GDS service design manual explains: “Government transactions typically involve an exchange of information, money, rights, goods or some combination of these. Usually one party will be a citizen or business and the other will be the government. For example, when someone applies for a passport they exchange information and money for the right to travel.”

A one-way payment has been described as an “electronic data exchange” and is not classified as a transaction.

Examples of existing citizen-facing transactions in health and care are the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), provided by the NHS Business Services Authority (NHS BSA), and the service to purchase a Radon risk report from PHE.

As this area comes under the zero spend control threshold, if NHS BSA or PHE want to redevelop these applications in future they will need to go through the GDS approvals process.

And in addition, if DH or one of its ALBs want to redesign or produce a new digital service, with more than 100,000 transactions per year, it will need to meet the digital by default service standard, which includes an assisted digital element.

The first batch of health transactions data will be included in the August release of the transactions explorer. We aim to provide a more complete view of health and care transactions for the following quarter.

4. ID assurance

GDS are currently working on a cross-Government approach to identity assurance. If your project involves an element of ID assurance for the general public it is important to check your thinking with the ID assurance team at GDS.

Digital spend of less than £100,000

Other digital spend that’s not covered by the zero threshold might include the following activity:

  • Collaboration or crowdsourcing tools
  • Email marketing tools
  • Extranets
  • Social media licences or tools
  • On-costs of existing websites e.g., hosting, licence renewals

If this activity comes to less than £100,000 it will not need to go to GDS for approval but it does need to be agreed by the departmental digital leader. For health this is Rachel Neaman.

Digital spend of more than £100,000

If your digital spend is expected to come to more than £100,000 over the lifetime of the project and isn’t one of the things listed under the zero threshold it will still need to go to GDS for approval.

What goes where for approval

Zero spend Less than £100,000 More than £100,000 Not digital
What this includes Websites
Domain registration
Mobile apps
Digital transactions
ID assurance for the public
Examples might be:
Collaboration/ crowdsourcing tools
Email marketing tools
Social media licences or tools
On-costs of existing websites
Anything else digital. IT includes:
Mission IT systems e.g. government to government transactions
Back office systems e.g. payroll
Desktop infrastructure and connectivityL&D includes:
Creation of e-learning modules (A new e-learning website would be digital)Comms and marketing includes:
Internal social networking
Content creation
Approvals process GDS via the DH Digital Leader Delegated to DH Digital Leader GDS via the DH Digital Leader Alternative spending controls

The process for getting your digital spend approved

We are looking at the best way to manage these approvals routes within DH and with GDS. For now, I will be the first point of contact at DH if you think you need either GDS or Digital Leader approval. We’re in the process of hiring some additional support roles for this work.

We’re running a workshop for digital and procurement colleagues at DH and ALBs at the end of the month and are keen to hear suggestions for how we manage this in the most efficient way possible.

One critical part of this will be early and open engagement between DH, ALBs and GDS. Cabinet Office requires DH to complete a quarterly return on digital and IT projects and contracts across ALBs. Although this might be time consuming to gather at the start, it will ensure early sight of these projects which in turn should help streamline the approvals process. We will also discuss the best way to approach this work at the workshop.

What we plan to do next

  1. Hold a workshop with DH and ALB colleagues on 30 July 2013 covering:
    - digital spending controls
    - transactions explorer data collection
    - digital / IT project and contracts data collection
  2. Circulate agreed processes/ principles for:
    - early engagement model for digital approvals
    - DH governance arrangements for digital/ IT
  3. Arrange a quarterly meeting for health ALB ‘digital leaders’ starting September 2013
  4. Submit transaction data from all ALBs for the November release of the transactions explorer tool
  5. Hold meetings with all ALBs by the end of September to agree deadline and process for submission of digital/ IT pipeline

If you have any questions or comments please either reply publicly on this blog or drop me an email at

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