Will the spending review herald government digitisation 2.0?
The past few months have seen concerns raised about the Government’s digital strategy. Several senior staff have left the Government Digital Service (GDS), including its charismatic and influential executive director Mike Bracken. There have also been rumours of doubts among senior officials about Bracken’s flagship ‘Government as a Platform’ strategy.
“Tight budgets force innovation”
All this makes for a challenging backdrop to the Spending Review. When it is published on 25th November, the Treasury will explain where an additional £20 billion of annual savings will be made. Simply ‘salami slicing’ departmental budgets will be unlikely to suffice, creating space for more ambitious ideas to fundamentally re-engineer services. In the words of Cabinet Office Minister Matt Hancock: “Tight budgets force innovation…[and] free up human ingenuity.”
Further digital transformation therefore looks set to play a major role. Ministers seem to have finally decided to stick with ‘Government as a Platform’ following recent announcements about new cross-government online platforms for payments and status tracking and notifications. But look out for news of any changes in how digital transformation will be delivered: the next phase could see GDS focussing more on policy and strategy, and departments taking more responsibility for delivery.
Digital government: What do citizens and businesses want?
Amid this context, we thought it would be a good time for our client EMC, a leading technology supplier to the public sector, to assess the progress government has made over the past five years in becoming more digital, and the areas where citizens and businesses thought improvements could be made.
Our survey of more than 2,000 consumers and 600 businesses found that, overall, government has made great strides. However, 60% thought that government still lags behind the private sector when it comes to online services, and that businesses lose 33 working days each year due to outdated processes. The Shadow Cabinet Office Ministers Louise Haigh MP and Baroness Hayter have both raised this finding in the Commons and Lords.
More positively, we found significant appetite for more digitisation across a range of key services, and a simpler way to interact with government, vindicating the Government’s ‘Digital by Default’ strategy.
For example, 49% of citizens wanted e-prescriptions available from all GP surgeries and pharmacies. This suggests plans to digitise the health service by introducing these and electronic patient records will be welcomed by the public. However, this work has been ongoing for some time, and while achieving change in an organisation as fragmented as the NHS is never easy, Ministers may be concerned by the relative lack of progress to date.
Businesses, meanwhile, wanted more personalised information on support programmes, tax breaks, and changes in regulation and legislation affecting them. Again, this suggests there will be significant interest in HM Revenue and Customs’ plans to end the annual tax return and introduce digital tax accounts from the beginning of next year.
Interestingly, while 41% of citizens wanted a single identity record for engaging with government online, 45% also said they didn’t want to share any of their data with government.
Although seemingly contradictory, this finding reinforces the underlying logic of the GOV.UK Verify programme. This is based on an innovative, federated model, enabling citizens to prove who they are when using online services without the Government storing any of their personal information. Instead, citizens are able to choose from a selection of accredited external suppliers, such as a credit reference agency or the Post Office, to verify their identity.
Ministers have been talking up Verify as a successful example of the government’s online platform strategy. But anecdotal reports suggest some citizens, such as those with limited credit histories like the very young and the very old, find it difficult to use. Watch out, therefore, for news about any changes in direction on Verify at the Spending Review.
Spending Review will be key
In less than a month, we will find out what the future will hold for digital government services in Britain. Matt Hancock has pledged to build on the progress of the past five years and apply new technology to “completely redesign how we serve citizens, delivering services that are cheaper, faster, more accessible and more secure.”
An exciting vision, to be sure, but the true test will be whether the Spending Review delivers on the Government’s existing digital commitments, while putting the structures and skills in place to support the next phase of change.