Public sector moves from offline to digital

Public sector services, from local councils to central government, are undergoing a revolution driven by digital technology and online delivery, as John Lamb reports


Earlier this month, officials from Lewes District Council in East Sussex quizzed local residents on their views about Locally Sorted, a proposed social media website to help citizens solve each other’s problems and interact with the council.

About 30 people, many representing local organisations, spent an evening telling council managers what kind of website might best suit them. It was a far cry from the centrally planned systems and military-style roll-outs usually associated with council computing.

This small project is one of thousands in the public sector aimed at applying digital technology to improve services, gather information and carry out transactions in a cheaper, more user-friendly fashion, often with the aid of apps, webcams, smartphones and the internet.

Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude is leading the overhaul of public sector technology. He has instituted a string of changes in central government to the way projects are developed, how information and communications technology (ICT) is procured and, above all, by adopting a so-called Digital by Default agenda.

“If a service can be delivered online, then it should only be delivered online,” he says. “Because as well as being an order of magnitude cheaper – 30 times less than by post and 50 times less expensive than face to face – services delivered online can be faster, simpler and more convenient for the public to use.”

The changes are being driven by austerity and the need to do more with less, but also by a desire to catch up with the private sector and improve services.

There is a Messianic quality to some of the claims for new technology that it can transform government, hold administrations to account and make the political process more transparent.

Most of the arguments for an overhaul of public sector ICT, however, are more down to earth, starting with the need to reduce an annual bill that in 2011-12 stood at £13.8 billion.

If a service can be delivered online, then it should only be delivered online

The cost of ICT has been inflated by a long list of failed projects, such as the £100 million spent by the BBC on its recently cancelled Digital Media Initiative.

Not that it is easy managing ICT in the public sector as regulations and governance often dictate how systems are run. For example, in the NHS the need to ensure patient records are kept confidential has slowed efforts to replace paper records with electronic ones.

No one should run away with the idea that the UK can be administered via smartphones. The public sector relies heavily on old-style ICT for gathering taxes and administering benefits. The National Audit Office (NAO) estimates that in 2011-12, legacy ICT supported at least £480 billion of the government’s operating revenues.

“Legacy systems are a fact of life for most significant ICT users,” warns NAO chairman Amyas Morse. “The challenge is how intelligently they are managed, whether they are being retained, updated, replaced or phased out.”

Outsourcing and staff reductions mean there is a shortage of people with the right skills, which in turn means organisations find it difficult to get the best solutions from suppliers. There are just too many long contracts, which may give continuity, but make it difficult to achieve savings or introduce new technology.

And the public sector is far from being of one mind. Separate units are free to make their own decisions, which works against economies of scale, and politicians such as Mr Maude can only cajole.

However, significant improvements have been made. To drive through Digital by Default and other initiatives, the Cabinet Office Minister created a new unit called the Government Digital Service (GDS).

GDS expects to save up to £1.8 billion by moving services from offline to digital channels. It has already announced that from this month all new transactional services will be Digital by Default. Last year alone, the government pocketed more than £440 million by controlling spending and sharing ICT infrastructure.

The way these services are being developed has radically changed with the emphasis on “agile” development in which projects are broken down into smaller steps and involve in their development the people who will use the systems.

“You can go down blind alleys in technology and they can be expensive blind alleys,” says Steve Halliday, head of IT at Solihull Council. “Projects go wrong because they haven’t been planned properly. But if you are agile then you can switch things on and off.”

A growing number of services are being delivered via the cloud, using the government-backed G-Cloud framework, generating further savings and greater efficiency. And G-Cloud has opened up central government business to small and medium-sized enterprises.

“The biggest blocker for adoption of G-Cloud is education,” says Simon Hansford, chief technology officer at Skyscape, a G-Cloud hosting services supplier. “Users don’t fully understand how to buy cloud services – they don’t know how it works.”

From local residents in Sussex to senior civil servants in Whitehall, everyone in public sector ICT is on a steep learning curve.