Getting the digital house in order

With the publication of the Government’s Digital Strategy and Digital Efficiency reports, Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude has attempted to fulfil commitments made in the Civil Service Reform Plan (CSRP) announced in June.
It is generally considered that central Government services have until now offered a poor user experience. The report states that the government’s 650 public services consist of over a billion different transactions, but many of these are not digital, and those that need to be redesigned, and are under-used.
According to the BBC, a study of local councils showed that face-to-face transactions cost £8.62, by phone this comes down to £2.83 and online transactions via a website cost only 15 pence. The strategy says that the changes could save up to £1.2bn by 2015 by making everyday transactions digital, and £1.7bn a year beyond 2015.
Tidying up with GOV.UK
The Whitehall departments that handle most of the central government service transactions for citizens will be the first to be redesigned. These are HM Revenue and Customs, Department for Transport, Department for Work and Pensions, Ministry of Justice, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Home Office. The GDS says that by the end of 2012, each of these departments will choose three significant services, with over 100,000 transactions a year that will be ‘tidied up’. All new or redesigned transactional services that go live after April 2014 will have to meet a new Digital‑by‑Default service standard first put forward by UK digital champion Martha Lane Fox in 2010, with the report Directgov 2010 and Beyond: Revolution Not Evolution. In response to the report, the government has already began the migration of sites, by launching single domain for government services, GOV.UK. The transition is seen as a priority. Between November 2012 and March 2013, the corporate publishing activities of all 24 central government departments will move onto GOV.UK, with agency and arm’s length bodies’ online publishing to follow by March 2014.
Mike Bracken, Government Digital Service executive director, led the development of the strategy. He stated: “This is the first time that the Government has produced a strategy in this way, a truly digital document which reflects our ambitions and signals a clear roadmap for working with departments to help them achieve the goals set out in this strategy,” he said.
A world service?
The strategy has been developed using digital tools, with civil servants working alongside software developers, content editors and designers using open source digital version control systems. The GDS digital action plan and design principles are “the most significant since Apple’s” according to Web 2.0 guru Tim O’Reilly, who is himself a supporter of the free software and open source movements. At a key treasury meeting detailing the strategy, he stated: “This is the new bible for anyone working in open government. Everyone around the world should be following this. If we can apply that as our scripture for government best practices at every level around the world we would be doing a fantastic service.”
Liam Maxwell, the deputy government chief information officer appointed in April, says it’s all about user need. Maxwell, previously head of computing at Eton College and head of IT at Capita Resourcing, told the Guardian: “That’s at the core of everything we do, and I have those words on the back of my phone. It’s not a question of pushing or forcing anything on people. We’re designing everything around the user need. That means driving people more towards the digital channel because it’s easier for them. If you give people the ability to use your technology, it will be cheaper for you, they’ll get it quicker, and your user experience will be so much better”.
Senior policy officer to the Prime Minister, Rohan Silva, has said that the government can look forward to cutting public sector spending on IT by £10 billion in the coming years. “It’s really interesting to remember where we were on this agenda two and a half years ago. In May 2010 there were 750 separate government websites, there was no Government Digital Service, even basic data about performance of public services and government spending weren’t being released,” explained Silva.
“People are talking about very big figures and potential savings in the Welfare budget, but it’s my view that over time we can take just as much out of IT. I think we can take £10 billion out of public sector IT spending in the years ahead, without any change in the experience for the citizen, other than it will get better.”
Local perspective
Local Government IT group Socitm has welcomed the new strategy and suggests it offers a good opportunity to review thinking about digital services in local government. Under the strategy, government departments will be required to submit data that will enable measurement of service performance around four key indicators: cost per transaction; user satisfaction; transaction completion rates; and take-up levels. Socitm says that every local public service should run a similar dashboard, comprising at least these four critical indicators and use it as the way of measuring the impact of channel shift for reporting to top management.
“In addition, and to take proper advantage of digital technologies and the opportunity for cost saving channel shift, local public services need to address ‘a major information gap’” says Socitm Insight’s Martin Greenwood.
“While the Government Digital Service now has information about offline and online use of central government’s 650 transactional services, there is a paucity of similar information available from local authorities. We recommend that every local public organisation starts now to collect systematically such information about their top ten or twenty services by volume and adds this to their dashboard.”
A big hurdle
The Cabinet Office estimates that the Strategy could deliver £1.7 to £1.8 billion a year in savings beyond 2015, but getting disadvantaged people and those not used to transcating in this way could prove to be a big hurdle.
According to the 21st century challenges website, 10 million people in the UK still do not have internet access, with 4 million of these aged 65 or over. Getting these people involved in the Digital Strategy plans is a different problem altogether, but the UK government is making progress in getting its digital house in order.

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