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UK Spending Review - did digital just get the top level support and funding it needed?

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez November 24, 2015
There has been huge concern that digital in government could face significant cutbacks and that government-as-a-platform could face delays. But according to Osborne, GDS has the cash to go full steam ahead.

George Osborne
George Osborne

The UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, took centre stage today and delivered the results of his much anticipated Spending Review. A plan to ‘fix’ public finances and return the UK’s economy to full health.

The Review is wide-ranging and will obviously mean different things to different people. But with public sector cuts being highly expected, us watching closely from digital quarters had been expecting the worst.

This was fuelled by the departure of Government Digital Service director Mike Bracken a couple of months ago, with sources telling us that this was because the Treasury had not bought into the required vision to make a real difference to public service delivery through the use of digital platforms.

We have been very concerned that the innovative ambitions behind government-as-a-platform were to be lost in Whitehall politics, set back by a lack of desire to change the inner workings of the Civil Service.

However, following Osborne’s delivery of the Spending Review today, we at diginomica are pleasantly surprised. In fact, we are a bit shocked. It seems that George Osborne is finally giving the top level support and the required funding to actually make digital transformation happen across central government departments.

Despite making cuts to the Cabinet Office, Osborne announced today that he would be increasing the Government Digital Service’s budget from £58.345 million for the five years to March 2015, to a whopping £450 million until 2020.

That’s a big enough sum to make significant change.

Of course execution is still key, but what’s been lacking in the past five years has been a voice from the top of government telling departments that this is happening and that it’s important. And then providing the money too.

Up until now GDS has in a large part relied on its grassroots reputation to drive change, it has been lucky to employ the political savvy of a few Ministers and civil servants to get what it needs and it is often joked that it got its last budget off the back of a website (referring to GOV.UK).

Now it has the Chancellor of the Exchequer outlining to the nation that GDS and digital are important. Not only that, but the spending review makes specific mention of government-as-a-platform and platforms to deliver service.

As I said, we are in a bit of shock. I don’t think many expected to get quite such a significant backing. And remember, this is all within the context of most other areas facing huge cuts.

But maybe those in government are starting to understand that service redesign and digital delivery are the best ways to get the savings and drive the efficiencies this government so desires. And of course to make us more competitive. For example, the review says:

A modern and reformed state is built on the understanding that higher spending does not automatically mean better services, and that by harnessing today’s technological advances, government can modernise public services, saving money and improving citizens’ interaction with the state.

We have been saying this for a while. Digital redesign will actually cost less and we will get better services as a result.

Here’s what the Spending Review says specifically about GDS:

The Government Digital Service will continue to act as the digital, data and technology centre for government, supporting departments as they transform their business operations, setting best practice and ensuring quality of services.

To support this role the government will provide the Government Digital Service with £450 million. The Government Digital Service will create common platforms, for example GOV.UK Pay, which will simplify hundreds of different payment systems making it easier for businesses and citizens to pay government.

By 2020 the government’s ambition is for citizens to have the option to pay online for every central government service, including passports, driving licences and motoring fees. The Common Technology Services programme will deliver flexible and modern technology for the entire Civil Service, opening up more government contracts to suppliers and saving money for taxpayers.

The document also states that the government will be investing a total of £1.8 billion in digital transformation, which include huge transformation activities at the UK’s tax office HMRC and the introduction of a “simple payment mechanism” for all central government services. It hopes that this funding will enable more efficient use of resources, including a reduction in administrative budgets of a further 18% by 2019-20.

Modern tax

We at diginomica have also been quite critical of HMRC’s service delivery lately. The tax office has been

tied into a very lengthy, very expensive outsourcing agreement called Aspire and has made commitments in the past to breaking this up and insourcing a lot of the activity to become more ‘digital’ and introduce more innovation.

However, that had been called into question a few times, as it seemed that HMRC was struggling to figure out how to actually make that happen.

But it seems that the Chancellor has very high expectations for the department as he announced a £1.3 billion investment to transform HMRC into “one of the most digitally advanced tax administrations in the world”.

Part of this will include the introduction of digital tax accounts for all small businesses and individuals by 2016-17. Other changes will include the requirement for most businesses, self-employed people and landlords to keep track of their tax affairs digitally by 2020 and update HMRC at least quarterly via their digital tax account.

The Spending Review states:

HMRC will ensure the availability of free apps and software that link securely to HMRC systems and provide support to those who need help using digital technology.

These reforms will deliver the biggest transformation of the tax system in a generation, making it more effective, efficient and easier for taxpayers, and are a first step by HMRC towards meeting a new target to reduce the costs to business of tax administration by £400 million by the end of 2019-20.

Other digital highlights

In the 2010 Spending Review, the word digital was mentioned just four times. In the Spending Review released today there are 58 mentions, which gives you an idea about how seriously the Treasury is now taking the agenda. However, that also means that there is plenty to digest and too much to cover in any significant level of detail here.

However, here are some other bullet point highlights from the report:

  • £500 million of additional investment in the Home Office to protect UK citizens from terrorist threats, including a new National Digital Exploitation Service to analyse the growing volumes of seized media for evidence and intelligence leads.
  • The government will fund new digital and investigative capabilities for the National Crime Agency, transforming it into a world-leading law enforcement agency tackling cyber-crime, child sexual exploitation and the distribution of criminal finances.
  • The government will invest £1 billion in new NHS technology over the next 5 years to deliver better connected services for patients and ensure that doctors and nurses have the information they need at their fingertips. By September 2018, 80% of clinicians in primary, urgent and emergency care will have digital access to key patient information. By 2020 integrated care records will give every health and care professional concerned with an individual’s care the information they need to provide safe and prompt care.
  • The government will invest £10 million in expanding the Healthcare Innovation Test Bed programme. This facilitates partnerships between industry and the NHS to make healthcare more effective and efficient by testing combinations of new digital technologies and innovations in NHS services. The Test Bed programme will fund a testing site in every region.
  • The government will run a £20 million competition to set up a new Institute of Coding that will train the next generation in higher level digital skills. Support will be provided to secure launch funding to create a new university in Hereford focused on engineering in 2016 (subject to relevant approvals).
  • In 2014-15 the government committed £380 million new investment over 5 years from 2015-16 to fundamentally transform the courts and tribunals system, ensuring it is fit for purpose and delivers swifter and more certain justice. In this Spending Review the government is increasing total investment to more than £700 million to modernise and fully digitise the courts, moving from a paper-based to an online system. This will eliminate the need for over half a million pre-trial hearings in the criminal courts, and will significantly reduce court hearing times and the time spent on basic administrative functions.
  • The government will invest £1.9 billion over 5 years in the UK’s cyber defences, almost double the investment over the previous 5 years.
  • Policing - the government will invest nearly £1 billion in new mobile digital technology through the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme. The enhanced network will enable officers to access key police databases, take mobile fingerprints and electronic witness statements and stream live body-worn video – all while on the move. The new network will cut costs for the taxpayer (saving £1 million per day when fully operational), free up police officers’ capacity, and connect all emergency services on the same broadband network for the first time.
  • To ensure the benefits of digital communications infrastructures are felt across the economy and translated into productivity gains, the government will publish a Digital Transformation Plan in early 2016.

My take

Initial reaction is that this is very good news for digital activities in Whitehall. Transformation will be made a lot easier with the backing of the Treasury and the money to go with it.

However, as ever, it’s going to be over the coming weeks when we really start to understand this and when we start to see how GDS will execute delivery across all departments. Will GDS become a bit more decentralised? How will it tackle the platforms approach? What will come first?

Time will tell, but for the meantime, I’m glad I’m not sitting here writing a story about how little support digital has in government. I think things might finally be starting to take hold. Now let’s not cock this up.

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