Yesterday we reported that tensions between the UK government’s Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and its Government Digital Service (GDS), the body responsible for accelerating digital delivery of services, had resulted in the latter pulling out quickly from the (politely understated) debacle that is the Universal Credit programme.
Now don’t worry. This isn’t another UC article as such. But it’s lovely timing that 24 hours after news broke of the DWP’s decision that it could manage without the help of GDS experts, comes a bravado claim from the Cabinet Office - GDS’ home - that the UK government will be the most digital among all the G8 nations - including the US - by this time next year.
So while DWP is footling along with its ‘twin track’ strategy of clinging to the wreckage of its existing IT spend on UC while attempting to rustle up enough in-house digital expertise to have a stab in that direction, the message is that the rest of central government is moving along quite nicely, thank you very much.
The ‘Digital by Default’ agenda was set down by the Cabinet Office with the intention of encouraging and enabling digital delivery of public services across government as the default channel.
Behind this is a need to gouge costs out of the public sector budget with the Cabinet Office arguing that on average, an online service is 20 times cheaper than a phone transaction, 30 times cheaper than by post and 50 times cheaper than face-to-face.
The Cabinet Office now reckons it’s on track to save a cumulative £1.2 billion by 2015, rising to around £1.7 billion each year after the next General Election which is due in May 2015.
From an individual taxpayer’s perspective of course those are enormous numbers that are rendered almost meaningless by their sheer size so the Cabinet Office has supplied some ‘real’ examples.
For example, it cites the case of digitising paper-based ‘lasting power of attorney’, which allows people to appoint someone to take decisions for them if they lose capacity.
Digital efficiencies are passed to customers through reduced application fees with the government able to reduce the cost of this service this year from £130 to £110. The first wave of 25 “exemplar” public services - a list of which can be found here - will be live online in 2015, supporting an estimated 1.3 million students applying for loans, 46 million people registering to vote and 10 million self-assessing their taxes.
The trigger for this latest announcement isn’t the UC debacle of course - that’s just a coincidence that might raise a right smile or two in corners of the Cabinet Office today - but the news that the latest public service, driving records, is prepared for public testing online in the next few weeks.
All of the country’s 40 million drivers will be able to access their licence data online once the service fully launches in June.
Drivers will be able to provide their driving licence number when they apply for insurance, so insurers can check their data and provide accurate quotes, which - assuming the insurance companies play ball here and pass on the efficiency savings - should reduce premiums for clean drivers.
Oliver Morley, Chief Executive and Digital Leader at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA), explains:
"Our aim is to maximise the use of digital to deliver high quality, customer-focussed services that work for everyone. Although some services cannot be delivered digitally, such as assessing a customer’s fitness to drive, we can improve the processes supporting the delivery of these services through making greater use of digital tools."
As the 2015 election is now around the corner in political terms, Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, is obviously keen to play up the contribution digital transformation can make to economic recovery:
"Our Digital by Default agenda is part of our long-term economic plan to tackle the deficit we inherited. I’m pleased to announce today that we expect to save at least £500 million from IT spend this year, on top of the £500 million we saved from government’s IT spend last year and £250 million the year before.
"To win the global race and save hard-working taxpayers more money, we need world-class public services available online 24/7 from anywhere. That’s why it’s great news that DVLA is about to launch online driving records which can be used by anyone with a driving licence as well as by the insurance industry."
He ends with a nice plug for the work of GDS and how it can help drive effective digital transformation:
"Back in 2010 our digital offering was limited at best and government IT was a by-word for disaster. "There are still challenges but with the help of the Government Digital Service I am determined that the UK will be the G8’s most digital government by next year."
But did he say it loud enough for it be heard in the bunker over at the DWP?
A bold claim - the most digital government in the G8 by next year. It’s a claim that may well be contested throughout the rest of the G8 of course.
It would be interesting to know, for example, how responsive the US government will be to Maude flagging up the shortcomings of its IT - as he did when diginomica met with the minister in December.
Yesterday he stated that Washington's IT services are "some distance behind" the UK and that America had relinquished its role as global leader in digital, citing the Obamacare website as a prime example. Let’s hope the special relationship’ stands up better than the Obamacare website!
But there’s little doubt that the UK government’s digital agenda is setting a good example for other nations.
Writing in the Guardian this week, Maude highlighted that the New Zealand government is taking its lead from the UK with its Govt.nz single government portal project, that country’s version of the UK’s award-winning GOV.UK. In his article Maude states:
GOV.UK was built for sharing. Most of its code is open source so other countries can use it, rather than having to develop their own. The New Zealand team adapted GOV.UK's basic design elements, saving time, money and resources.
Whether it will be the most digital government or not, there is clearly a lot of good practice that can be learned from the UK digital strategy and the work of GDS.
It’s just a shame that overseas officials seem readier to take it on board than certain parties do closer to home…