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Where's government-as-a-platform in your Spending Review, Chancellor?

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez July 20, 2015
The UK's Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has outlined plans to make another £20bn in savings. But government-as-a-platform didn't get a look in.

Osborne Budget
The UK's Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, has just launched the government's latest spending review, which has been dubbed as the next stage in 'fixing the nation's finances'. However, what was noticeably absent from the Chancellor's launch document was any mention of government-as-a-platform.

Equally surprising was that across the 28 page document, which gives a look at savings over the last parliament and how a 'strategic approach' to spending will be achieved over the course of this current parliament, there are only five mentions given to the role of digital technologies. And three of those five mentions occur within the same paragraph.

Which begs the question, is this digital transformation of the public sector being taken seriously as we scale up the chain of command? It could be said that perhaps this isn't Osborne's area of expertise and that this is a review with a broader interest beyond digital, but as I've argued before, those at the top of government need to be driving this agenda to ensure it has any sort of significant impact.

And why's that? The implications are huge and it needs support from the top.

But, just to recap, the UK government has spent the last five or so years driving a digital revolution within the centre of Whitehall in the form of the Government Digital Service (GDS). A number of agendas have played a role - such as the G-Cloud, the breaking up of large government contracts, the renegotiation of commercial deals, the redesign of public services – all of which have contributed to billions of pounds worth of efficiency savings.

However, the end game is government-as-a-platform, which focuses on creating common goods and services that can be reused across the whole of the public sector. I've written quite a bit on the long-term implications of this, but ultimately it means that a hell of a lot of duplication could be eradicated from the public sector and we could end up with an agile design process for everything from citizen-facing services to policy making.

Mark Thompson, a senior lecturer at Cambridge University and an expert on the subject of government platforms, recently outlined the importance of needing a national conversation, spearheaded by those at the top, on GaaP. He said:

Let’s start with a national conversation. For me it’s very clear that digital and platforms are business models, it’s not about technology. It’s not about iPads, it’s not about IT, it’s not about agile – it’s a business model that exploits shared web-based infrastructure. If we apply that to government and think through the implications of reforming a government around shared web-based infrastructure, which is what this is about, we start to get at something very fundamentally deep.

You start to disintermediate bureaucracies up and down the country. The amount we could save is very, very big and not enough attention is being given to the implications of that. Where’s the Prime Minister in this?Because what this is talking about is transitioning to a digital business model for the UK public service economy. It’s going to be country changing and we aren’t getting anything like the right level of interest.

It has been estimated that government-as-a-platform could save at least £35 billion (albeit these are very

rough estimates). So why is not being given more attention? Who knows. It's also important to remember that these are savings that can be made without taking money away from front-line services. These are back-office savings.

What we do know, is that this is what the Chancellor has to say about digital in his latest Spending Review document:

We will also make greater use of digital technology to modernise Britain’s public services and give people greater choice in the decisions that affect them and their communities. We will go further to maximise efficiencies and get the best value for money for taxpayers in all areas of public spending.

And this:

The Government Digital Service (GDS) and the GOV.UK website in 2012 have established the United Kingdom as a digital world-leader. The GDS has redesigned and digitised more than 20 key public services, driving down transaction costs and improving service quality for citizens. More than 2 million people have registered to vote using a new digital service, and new claims for Jobseeker’s Allowance, State Pension and Carer’s Allowance are now all available online.

Is that enough? I'd argue not when Osborne wants £20 billion of additional savings by 2020.

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