Turbocharging Digital Transformation in Public Services

In the Autumn Statement, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, talked of making ‘difficult decisions’. 

In the wake of this, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, John Glen MP, has said that he intends to make the government more efficient and ‘root out the waste’ by focusing on ‘turbocharging’ plans to digitise its public services. 

Here, we look at how ministers might accomplish that and what benefits it would bring to the UK population.

Where we are now

Back in 2012, the government laid out its plans in its Digital Efficiency Report, claiming that the savings ‘from bringing transactional services offered by central government online’ could be in the region of £1.8 billion. Fast forward ten years, the Government Digital Service (GDS) is still promising a simple, joined-up and personalised experience of government for everyone. 

There have been successes: in the same year, GOV.UK was launched to create a single publishing platform, migrating over 2,000 websites, including registering to vote, applying for student finance, booking prison visits, applying for a visa, finding an apprenticeship and PAYE. The GDS has a budget of around £90 million per annum (2021 figures) and employs over 800 people to support and maintain its platforms and content, ensuring that the information and services are up-to-date and function reliably. 

However, in a new drive for increased efficiency within the civil service, Mr Glen has proposed that further savings can be made by ‘turbocharging’ the government’s plans to digitise public services. He suggests that spending on administration could be ‘slashed’ and a saving of around £1 billion could be made every year by 2025. He also added that these measures could speed up and improve the government’s operations.

How would this be achieved?

As an example of his efficiency savings, Mr Glen recommends that new procurement rules be brought in to help the various government departments purchase the goods and services they need more cheaply. 

According to the Whole of Government Accounts (a consolidated set of financial statements for the UK public sector), £295.5 billion was spent on procurement from the private sector in 2019/20, the latest data available, which amounts to a third of public sector spending. A report published on 29th September 2022, entitled ‘Accounting Officer Memorandum: Transforming Public Procurement Programme’ estimates that reforms could save £205 million over the next ten years and will simplify and standardise processes. 

Mr Glen also requires that progress be made with digital transformation in line with its UK Digital Strategy, which we have discussed previously here, and which it’s estimated can save the UK £1 billion by 2025. Mr Glen suggests that selling off under-used and expensive central London properties (which ones, at this moment in time, has not yet been revealed) could be a way to finance the turbocharging he has in mind, given that there are around 136,000 government buildings worth £158 billion, and which cost £22 billion to operate (2020/21 figures). That’s a lot of money, some of which could make its way into the digital budget which would enable the government to keep its promises. 

Doubt about the effectiveness of the government’s strategy

A publication by the Committee of Public Accounts, published in 2021, entitled Challenges in implementing digital change, expresses concern about ‘the number of complex, large-scale digital programmes we continue to see fail and the impact this has on important government services and taxpayers’ money’. 

It cites examples of large scale digital failure in the NHS which could actually be putting patients’ lives at risk, and the delay in replacing the police national computer which has meant that more than £400 million extra in overrun costs. 

In the government’s own literature, it proclaims the virtue of digital transformation – its UK Digital Strategy states that the UK’s economic future depends on ‘continued and growing success in digital technology’. 

But is it acting fast enough to implement these changes, especially given the financial constraints that the UK is experiencing at the moment?

According to its own blog, the GDS has 5 main missions for the next 3 years:

  1. Make GOV.UK the single online destination for government information and services

  2. Join up the services across multiple departments

  3. Create a simple digital identity 

  4. Use common tools and expert services

  5. Join up data across departments

But if the finances aren’t there to support these aims they simply won’t be met. And, so far, no evidence of ‘turbocharging’ has been seen.

A stand-out phrase in the above missions is to use ‘expert services’. This means employing people with the skills and the abilities to implement the changes that the government keeps talking about. 

Without talented people on board to oversee the necessary ‘missions’, even more money will be needed to rectify the mistakes that have been made in the past. The government talks about the importance of the digital infrastructure which it says is vital to enhance public services, but seems unwilling or unable to quantify just how much investment in both systems and talent that it needs to get the job done. 

Without a firm commitment to an adequate budget and the willingness to invest in the talent that it needs to take its plans forward, its promises will remain empty and the UK’s public services will be left behind, with all the ramifications for its population that scenario has. 

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