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24 July 2014
Digital by default

Digital by default

Deep within Our Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh, Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, draws a parallel between the location’s depiction of the natural forces that have shaped the earth – and government IT. “There are some surprising similarities. Back in the beginning, there was only darkness; it was a lost world of poor quality digital services, frustrated users, overburdened taxpayers.

“There was a ‘big bang’ approach to IT development which sent money and expectations hurtling down the nearest black hole and a procurement process so outdated that it belonged with the dinosaurs. But then the tectonic plates shifted; suddenly there was no money. We were forced to take a giant evolutionary leap.”

Maude was speaking about the journey embarked upon by the Cabinet Office’s Government Digital Service and how it fits into the UK Government’s wider vision for the future of public services.

“Digital government isn’t an end in itself or a stand-alone project; it is one of the ways we will create comprehensive 21st-century services,” he said. “I’m very proud of the work that some brilliant civil servants are doing to lead this transformation. It’s pioneering. It’s world-leading. And we want the whole of the UK to share the benefits.”

Maude, who was in Edinburgh to speak at the Holyrood Connect Conference, said the context was simple: “We ran out of money. Every government around the world faces the same problem. Public expectations of public services are rising and we have had, until recently, pretty flat economies. Growth is now returning to the UK. Confidence is building. But the truth is that austerity in public finances is going to be a fact of life for quite some time.

“All governments are seeking the answer to the same basic questions; how do we deliver more for less? And the one thing we have absolutely demonstrated is that we can put paid to the old defeatist myth that says: ‘You want better quality services, you have got to pay more money’. Progress is about doing things differently, innovating, finding better ways of doing things.

“We have demonstrated that you can make the same amount of money buy more. You can achieve the same with less money. Actually, what we are demonstrating is that you can deliver more, and better, for less money.”

There had been a choice, said Maude, between what he described as the ‘”low road”; cutting spending from the top down by “salami slicing” budgets and the “high road” of redesigning public services from the bottom up, around the needs of the user of public services not around the convenience of the providers. The Coalition Government took the high road, he said, and five broad themes have emerged. They are practical, not ideological, he added.

The first was openness. “Being transparent, builds trust, it sharpens accountability, people can compare costs and outcomes and make choices.” The Government’s open data portal data.gov.uk is the largest resource of its kind in the world, with more than 40,000 data sets. “That’s supporting a thriving community of digital start-ups,” said Maude. “[They’re] using this data as the raw material for new ideas, solutions, products and services, cultivating new markets and creating new jobs.”

The second was tight control of spending from the centre over common areas of spending. The third was its counterpart, said Maude; much loser control, “pushing away control over front-line operation”. He said the Government was strongly supporting the growth of public service mutuals: “No longer are we limited to this crude binary choice between in-house monopoly public sector provision and raw, red-blooded outsourcing and privatisation.”

Fourth, said Maude, was moving to get a “properly innovative culture, so that public servants know they have permission to try new ideas. We hope we can move away from the risk aversion which has held organisations back in the past. You need a culture that says: ‘Try it, if it doesn’t work, stop doing it and learn from that.’ We are seeking to create a culture that’s faster, less bureaucratic, focused on delivery of outcomes not on process or structure.”

The fifth was digital by default. The world leader in digital government, said Maude, is Estonia. He recalled asking the prime minister how this had happened and the explanation was that when it became independent, it had no legacy – the Russians ‘cleaned out’ the infrastructure – and no money and so it had to do things differently. “Well,” observed Maude, “we’ve recreated the second of those conditions.

“But we did have a legacy, and it was a pretty ugly legacy. Very expensive IT. Large fixed costs. Huge build costs. A lot of it obsolete by the time it comes on-stream. Every so often there comes a point in history where there comes a single, brilliant technical achievement that changes almost everything overnight: the steam engine, the discovery of penicillin. And when Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web 25 years ago, it eradicated at a stroke the concept of distance in communications.”

The private sector had taken advantage much more quickly than the public sector. Internet companies have shown government what is possible, he said. Providing services tailored to the needs of users so that they can interact with government at a time of their choice, quickly and affordably. Back in 2010, the Government said it wanted to be “digital by default”. As Maude described it: “Hassle-free services, easy and convenient.”

It started with gov.uk and putting all the Government’s publishing online; last year it won the Design Museum’s Design of the Year award and last month it reached 50,000 monthly visitors. “It’s clear, consistent, uncluttered – based on the sensible principle that the public should not have to understand where the role of one department ends and another begins to find what they are looking for. They want a simple answer to a simple question. It’s about putting the needs of the user above all other considerations.”

The process was iterative, said Maude, building and testing in “small chunks”, working quickly to make improvements along the way. “It will always be a work in progress. The idea that we somehow take delivery of a finished product from the provider of a service has gone. Google doesn’t think Google has finished. We visited Netflix in Silicon Valley recently – they have developers releasing maybe a dozen updates of code every day.

“This process of continual refinement has taken the public sector too long to get its head around. So this is a 360-degree revolution. In the old world we were procuring programmes before they had been designed or over such a long period of time that the technology was out of date way before it was delivered. The first the public would see was when they had gone live, by which time it was too late or too expensive to make changes.”

Now that most of the Government’s information has been migrated online, it is moving on to transactional services, starting with 25 exemplars, including student loans, the lasting power of attorney and registering to vote. “We are not merely creating digital services, we are designing a digital government for the future.” Maude said the savings would be “huge” and services better. It will also help create new businesses and support small and medium-sized enterprises.

“We in UK Government are undergoing a digital transformation, a digital revolution, not only how we procure and deliver services but also how we design them. We are doing more in-house. We are building more capability in Government. It offers the public a great proposition; faster, more convenient services tailored around their needs, delivered at a lower cost and in a way that boosts the economy by supporting some of our most innovative and exciting businesses.”

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