The Potential of Digital Government to Reshape our Public Services

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In his State of the Union Address in 2011, President Obama delivered a damning indictment on the capacity of the state to keep pace with the rapid progress in digital technology: ‘We live and do business in the Information Age, but the last major reorganisation of Government happened in the age of black-and-white TV.’

Across the pond in Britain, Gordon Brown’s derided appearance on YouTube during the height of the expenses scandal in 2009 seemed to typify Westminster’s unsophisticated understanding of technology; particularly as the video’s comments section had been shut off. The spectacular failure of the PR exercise led commentators, such as the Economist’s ‘Bagehot,’ to contend that the episode would hasten Brown’s demise.

Though the vast majority of our politicians have been trapped in a digital stone age, the case for greater incorporation of technology in government is gradually gaining momentum. Last month, Labour published its Digital Britain 2015 review, which pledged to harness technology to foster citizen-powered public services and forge a ‘new way of governing our country.’ In the Coalition government, Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude has been particularly forceful in articulating this potential for tech-based solutions to transform services.

The contemporary climate of austerity is now the latest challenge confronting the task of public-service reform, as government departments and local authorities are expected to reduce costs, while also improving services to satisfy a growing and ageing population. Today, modern technology appears to be the most viable solution in achieving this ostensibly impossible objective. More broadly, it possesses the potential to radically reshape our public services.

The attractive case for ‘E-Government’ rests on four chief premises: saving money, improving services, increasing transparency in government and more closely connecting citizens to the state. Take cost- Individuals’ transactions with government relating to services, such as renewing a driving license, are 20 times cheaper over the internet than the phone and 50 times more than through the post. Online-based interaction has allowed public-sector leaders to close down costly front offices and call centres.

Technology can also considerably improve services. In their book entitled The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State, Economist journalists John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge observed that a single NHS trial involving the use of remote electronic monitors to observe 6,000 patients with chronic diseases led to a reduction in A&E admissions of 20% and mortality by 50%. Remote monitoring, which already monitors diabetics, is a potentially powerful tool for prevention and could reduce the heavy strain on the NHS.

Moreover, technology can bolster transparency by opening up the state to greater public scrutiny. Micklethwait and Wooldridge proposed that by publishing statistics online on the usage and costs of services, such as Sure Start centres, councils could more effectively explain a closure in a given area or highlight that better use should be made of them. Technology can also diminish the deepening gulf between the state and citizens, empowering the latter in the process. Taking an example from abroad, Finland’s government has established a digital platform in which citizens can help digitise the national library, effectively mobilising the public to assume a function that the state previously performed.

 “E-Government’ rests on four chief premises: saving money, improving services, increasing transparency in government and more closely connecting citizens to the state.’’

To its credit, Coalition has looked to adopt a ‘digital by default’ agenda in government, though there remains the potential for far more to be achieved. Its Government Digital Service (GDS) unit has produced a new government website Gov.uk, which secured the Design of the Year Award in 2013. Gov.uk supplanted the complex web of 300 departmental websites, which has saved £62M and improved access to services for millions of people, such as passport and business patent renewal, which have now been digitised.

The GDS has also begun to phase out many expensive IT contracts which have plagued past governments. Overall, it aims to digitise half of the most commonly utilised services by March 2015, including tax payments for small businesses and claims for Personal Independence Payment (PIP).

GOV.UK

Though far less publicised, innovation has also taken place at a local level; particularly essential as councils will have experienced a 40% cut in their funding grant by the end of 2015. Shifting services online (or to mobile devices) and utilising technology to help manage the huge demand on health and social care services, have aided some councils in simultaneously achieving significant savings and better services.

Hillingdon Borough has saved £750,000 per year by switching to Google Apps. Barking and Dagenham, one of London’s poorest boroughs, has reduced the cost of processing benefit claimants by £600,000 per year by shifting all claims online and considerably reduced the average processing time by 30 days. Improving access has crucially been secured. Croydon has formed the Family Space website to offer greater information on accessing local children’s’ services, such as child-minders.

Despite heartening successes, a great deal more can done to enhance the state through technological innovation. Here are some suggestions. In central government, a single, standardised software system should be installed across its various branches to replace the several hundred different systems, which hinder effective interaction between departments and cost huge sums. In addition, the government could sponsor a ride-sharing app similar in design to TFL’s app for the tube network to relieve pressure on our busy roads.

A team of professional technological experts should be permanently setup in Whitehall to analyse Big Data, as Whitehall is currently ill-equipped in this task. While the private sector allows us to engage in swift digital transactions, around half of the public sector’ transactional services possess no digital option at all. This must be tackled. Moreover, government purchasing should be digitised to allow departments to purchase goods and services through a single electronic platform, enhancing purchasing power and slashing bureaucracy.

Paper communication in departments must be replaced by cheaper digital communication. The state is still far too opaque and an accessible website to trace who carries out set functions in government would help tackle the public’s deep mistrust of Westminster. Local councils, which provide some of the most heavily utilised services, should ditch the more than 400 separate websites with a single domain similar to gov.uk.

There are however clear challenges however to an ambitious digital agenda, including the ignominy of recent government IT fiascos, such as the fraught roll-out of Universal Credit. The track-record of past governments has been equally embarrassing. Since the first primitive PC was created in 1958, the cost of tax collection for HMRC has barely shifted. Billions have been wasted on new IT systems with little discernible improvement in public sector productivity, which declined by 1% between 1999-2010 according to ONS figures.

The public sector’s lack of manoeuvre for experimentation, as opposed to the private sector where failure is often viewed as driving improvement, and intense public scrutiny are additional significant hurdles. Senior managers in Whitehall don’t possess the necessary digital skills; unlike America’s cohort of public officials enrolled in Code for America, which trains coders to work alongside government to alleviate social problems through tech-based solutions.

High levels of digital exclusion are equally problematic. Unsurprisingly, many public-sector staff worry about the potential for technology to supplant their functions in government and their support for the digital agenda is often lukewarm.

Despite these major challenges, technology, which has transformed numerous spheres of our society, including the retail, journalism and publishing sectors, has the capacity to reshape and strengthen our valued public services. The state can learn valuable lessons from the private sector; namely that citizens will use simply designed, customer-centred digital platforms, like internet banking.

We now digest vast amounts of information and purchase our goods online, so surely we should expect the state to provide public services that are readily accessible online? A smarter, leaner and more responsive state can be forged and successfully surmount the daunting fiscal straightjacket. Top-down, introverted public management methods must be replaced by new digitally-led, collaborative services, which will increasingly dominate the public service reform landscape.

 

Lessons to Learn from our Councils Lessons to Learn from Abroad
Blackburn:

with Darwen CouncilIts telecare programme, which remotely monitors elderly patients, has saved £10M over the last four years and helped reduce pressure on social care services

Boston, United States:

Created an app allowing Bostonians to photograph infrastructure problems, such as potholes, and send onto City Hall, which automatically generates a work order for a public works team to resolve the problem, helping slash bureaucracy and improve responsiveness

 Bristol City Council:

Equipped its neighbourhood based officers with Iphone and Android tablet devices to enable them to conduct their daily tasks without visiting the office, which saved £10M over three years, mainly in office costs

Honolulu, United States:

Established a website to identify faltering batteries in hurricane warning systems, which have proved crucial during its heavy hurricane season

Hammersmith & Fulham Council:

Established an integrated online portal for the five highest usage services, which secured annual savings of £1.5B and simplified access to services

Manor, Texas, United States:

This small town launched ‘Manor Labs’ which rewards locals who offer innovative solutions to improve local government; prizes include the opportunity to be Mayor for the day

Hertfordshire County Council:

Digitised applications for secondary school places and free school meals, which has saved £76M

New York, United States:

Doctors performed remote gall bladder surgery over the internet on a patient in Strasbourg, France in 2001

 Lewisham Council:

Created the LoveLewisham app to allow residents to digitally notify the borough of environmental transgressions, such as fly tipping, which has saved £500,000 over the past five years and mobilized citizens.

Denmark:

Citizens are able to pay their taxes via text, saving millions in tax collection and reducing bureaucracy

Sunderland City Council:

Used the data network on 3G mobile phones to link carers and elderly patients to a 24-hour contact centre, which remotely monitors patients to give carers respite

Estonia:

Established a GPS system tracking illegal rubbish dumps, allowing citizens to come together to clean them up

 

By Oscar Warwick Thompson, Junior Writer for Daily Political  View

Twitter: (@OscarWT_)

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