Are there votes in digital policy?
Recent years have witnessed a sharp rise in interest from all three main political parties in using technology to transform the way public services are delivered.
This has been driven by two main factors. The first is the pressing need for greater efficiency. Right across the public sector budgets have been frozen or cut. Technology is seen as a way of delivering more with less: offering transactions online can be up to 50 times cheaper than face to face.
The second is the realisation that the public have become used to buying with one click on Amazon, finding any information they need on Google, and doing all of this on any device they choose, when and wherever they like. Increasingly, they expect the same level of convenience in the services they use in the public sector.
In 2010, the Conservatives took the lead on these ideas by publishing their own Technology Manifesto. In government, they have implemented a number of them as part of their public service reforms. Arguably the most significant development has been the creation of the Government Digital Service (GDS), a team of digital experts based in the Cabinet Office, tasked with using digital technology to make government services cheaper and easier to use.
Among GDS’s achievements is the creation of GOV.UK, a single domain to replace more than 300 government websites. By March 2015, 25 of the government’s highest volume public-facing transactions, such as registering to vote and viewing a driving licence, will be converted to the digital-by-default standard. The stated aim is: “Digital services that are so straightforward and convenient that all those who can use them will choose to do so, while those who can’t are not excluded.” This programme of work is projected to save £1.7 billion each year after 2015.
The government has also realised that in a digital age, data is currency and there are big opportunities to be had by using it in smarter ways. Most successful has been its work on open data, publicly releasing non-personal datasets held by public sector bodies to increase transparency and enable third parties to create innovative new tools and apps.
The UK is now a leader in the field, with more than 15,000 datasets available on data.gov.uk. Other initiatives to use data to improve services have stumbled. Care.Data, a project to combine and analyse information from individuals’ anonymised GP and hospital records to help improve healthcare services, was met with a very negative public backlash due to concerns over data privacy. The government is cautiously looking at better ways to handle data projects in future.
Outlook for May
Actions so far provide a reasonably clear indication of what we might expect from a future Conservative government; efficiency and transparency will continue to be the primary motivations. But where do the other parties stand?
In November, Labour published Making Digital Government Work for Everyone, an independent report summarising the findings of a public consultation commissioned by shadow Cabinet Office minister Chi Onwurah. Its contents are far ranging, but two points of emphasis are clear. The first is on digital inclusion. Labour has long been concerned about what going digital will mean for the 10.5 million people in the UK who lack basic digital skills, 69 per cent of whom are in the lowest socio-economic groups.
Though the government did publish a Digital Inclusion Strategy earlier this year, Labour claim it was too little, too late, noting that it will leave almost 10 per cent of the population without basic digital skills in 2020. They have been especially critical of comments from Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, who has suggested that some services may only be provided online in future.
Their second focus is ethics. The report argues the government has been too focused on applying digital services for cost reduction, without thinking about the impact they will have on the people that use them. Instead of giving priority to digitising services that save central government most money, it suggests the starting point should be those that offer the greatest benefits for society.
The authors also feel the government has been too relaxed about data-sharing initiatives (hence the problems of Care.Data) and advocate the launch of a public review “to define a clear set of public interest principles to be adhered to by government and private sector data-sharing and analytics projects”. It remains to be seen how many of the report’s ideas will become official Labour policy, but the direction of the party’s thinking is clear.
Ethical concerns feature prominently in the Liberal Democrats’ approach to digital. Though they have been supportive of the government’s digital-services agenda, they have regularly clashed with their Conservative colleagues over concerns about online individual liberties.
They have promised a Digital Bill of Rights in their next manifesto. Proposals are likely to include a ban on the mass collection of data from British residents by police and security services, and ensuring authorities can only access personal data where an individual is suspected of taking part in illegal activity. Though not directly related to digital public services, it is clear that, when it comes to government making more innovative use of data, the party wants individual citizens to remain firmly in control.
Whatever the shape of the next government, more progress is needed. On a daily basis, two lorry loads of paper are delivered to the DVLA and the Crown Prosecution Service prints one million sheets of paper. The government provides more than 770 transactional services, but around half of these do not offer any digital option at all.
Change will be hard to achieve, but the benefits would be huge. If the rate of public sector productivity growth can be accelerated to match that in comparable parts of the private sector, by 2020 government could free up £24 billion a year to be spent on improving public services or deficit reduction.
As austerity continues into the next parliament, using technology offers a genuine means to deliver more and better with less. Small wonder the parties are now starting to sit up and take note.