The public sector is digitising, but will only succeed if it can reduce transaction costs and increase citizen satisfaction, writes David Bicknell
The rallying call of a UK public sector managers’ conference was Digital: Discover It, Do It! And for many organisations within the public sector, that describes the desire, if not the mood.
The Coalition’s budget-cutting agenda has driven a “do more for less” approach that has led to a war against long contracts with traditional information and communications technology (ICT) suppliers in favour of shorter contracts of smaller value, an intention to open up public sector business to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and a mantra of “digital by default”.
ICT is vital for the efficient and cost-effective delivery of all public services, from schools and social housing to benefits payments and national security, and it accounts for a significant proportion of total public sector expenditure, with an estimated £13.8 billion spent in 2011-12, according to public sector analysis group Kable. The £13.8 billion figure excludes direct employment costs associated with in-house ICT staff employed by public sector organisations.
But now, instead of longstanding contracts with traditional system integrators and a focus on keeping legacy systems running, there is a drive from the Cabinet Office to re-engineer processes to be simpler and so require less complex ICT.
The rest of the public sector – local government, welfare and housing, health and social care – is beginning to buy into the digital theme, but lacks the impetus from the centre that has characterised the Whitehall landscape for the past four years.
That has been led by Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude and the Government Digital Service (GDS) which was created following a report by digital champion Martha Lane Fox that called on government to adopt a service culture, putting the needs of citizens ahead of those of Whitehall departments.
GDS has three goals: transforming 25 high-volume “key exemplars” from across government into digital services; building and maintaining the consolidated GOV.UK website, which brings government services together in one place; and changing the way government procures IT services. It wants to deliver digital services “so good people prefer to use them”.
After years of struggling against Whitehall procurement rules, SMEs are now winning government business, thanks to the creation of the G-Cloud framework
The 25 digital exemplars are at various stages of development – discovery, alpha, beta and live. Just one – Student Finance at the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills – is live and 16 are currently in beta phase, including four projects – PAYE for employees, digital self-assessment, your tax account, and agent online self-serve – at HM Revenue & Customs, one of the most digitally advanced Whitehall departments. Two key exemplars also in beta phase are applying for lasting power of attorney and claiming Carer’s Allowance.
Behind the digital drive are two key performance metrics – cost per transaction and digital take-up. If the digital strategy is to be a success, the cost of transactions between the government and public service users should fall as digital take-up rises. Another key metric is user satisfaction and the quality of the user experience.
GDS executive director Mike Bracken’s message is that GDS is halfway through its challenge to transform government in 400 working days. As well as its focus on user needs, GDS also wants to open up the supply chain, enabling open and agile teams in departments, and putting a stop to big IT projects.
This backlash against “big IT” has led traditional government IT suppliers to create their own digital units and highlight their willingness to work with SMEs who, after years of struggling against Whitehall procurement rules, are now winning government business, thanks to the creation of the G-Cloud framework.
Although most Whitehall departments have embraced the digital agenda and appointed chief information or technology officers as well as digital leaders who understand the GDS approach, it has not always been an easy marriage, as the ongoing struggle to deliver the biggest of big IT projects, Universal Credit, has demonstrated. The project, to replace six existing benefits, was again under fire recently from a committee of MPs over plans for its digital solution.
The focus on digital services has yet to take off as much in local government, prompting questions over whether the GDS central government culture and direction can truly become embedded in town halls.
Key exponents include Devon County Council, where digital communications manager Carl Haggerty has created an emerging group that is pushing for greater co-ordination and sharing among those working in digital in local government.
In London, the Borough of Camden has introduced a digital strategy which focuses on using technology to reduce inequality, facilitate economic growth, improve transparency and deliver value-for-money services.
GDS is now working with the public sector technology managers’ group Socitm to develop digital dashboards for an evolving exemplar project based on missed waste bin collections in Solihull in the West Midlands.
Although digital has many different definitions, it is undoubtedly transformative and positively disruptive with deployment being driven by a mix of government policy, technology potential, demographic change and austerity.
The mood was summed up at the 2014 UKGovcamp, a free, annual public sector “unconference”, where digitally aware delegates make connections, engage and spark ideas off one another, then head back to their own organisations and see where they can make a difference. In other words, “experiment, learn and celebrate progress”.
For many, progress towards the greater digitisation of the public sector will be less about digital by default and more, as one specialist succinctly put it, about getting from digital vision to digital value.