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Government wasted £21bn a year on IT, says think-tank.

Ian Grant

Transformational Government, Labour's ambitious plan to use IT to transform how citizens and government agencies interact, has been a disaster, says an academic think-tank.

"Despite a spend of as much as £21bn (a year) on public sector IT, it is difficult to find any compelling examples of direct productivity gains and improved public services," said the Centre for Technology Policy Research at the London School for Economics (LSE).

In publishing a slew of recommendations to the new government, the centre said Transformational Government was also driven by the "chimera" of theoretical operational efficiency savings.

But public sector spending continued to increase even though there was a simultaneous a decline in public sector productivity, the centre said.

"Transformational Government was an anachronistic and ultimately ineffective approach from which the UK has only recently begun to distance itself," it said.

It used an "out-dated, 20th-century approach of imposed command and control enabled by large central databases". It distracted government from its own policy aspirations and ignored where the technology of the internet age was heading - towards more localised, autonomous, distributed and consumer-responsive services built around common technical standards, it said.

Budget deficit

The centre said the paper came out in the face of conflicting demands on the government. "The economy is weak, with the UK's budget deficit forecast to rise to up to £178bn this year, and the total amount of government debt is likely to go above £850bn. We face longer-term challenges too, such as an ageing population, climate change and ever-increasing demands on the National Health Service (NHS)," said the Centre for Technology Policy Research.

Government needed to be re-thought and re-designed for the 21st century, it said. Part of this re-design would involve transactional, administrative and informational public services being streamlined and automated wherever possible, while leaving no citizen behind.

Whitehall had developed innovative and world-leading policies and strategies, later discarded, that would have embedded a widespread culture of open government, it said.

"President Obama's team had adapted some of those UK policies from the early 2000s, particularly in the area of online trust models, the pivotal role of intermediaries and federated authentication," the centre said.

"Unlike the UK, Obama's team has also focused on how to sustain delivery and the necessary cultural changes, rather than on the belief that policy alone is a worthwhile outcome in itself," it said.

Enabling use of data

"The UK's original approach understood that successful reform of our public services would not be determined by government building and designing websites, but by enabling the use of underlying public data and processes by third-parties. This was to be achieved through the use of standardised data formats and system interfaces," it said. There was some initial success, such as DVLA information being used by insurers. "But this early insight was later displaced by the outdated approach of Transformational Government, which sought to centralise at a time when both political and technical trends were headed in the opposite direction," it said.

Another fundamental issue was the extent to which open licensing is mandatory in any publicly funded project. "In the same way that the internet was designed to be open by default, government too needs to redesign itself to be open by default," the Centre for Technology Policy Research said.

Central government had to "let go" of the information, it said. Modern technology operating within a common, consistent framework could devolve power to more local, agile and responsive agents that would reform the public sector, it said.

Modern technology enabled routine participation and interaction between government and citizens on a scale that has never previously been practicable, it said. The centre noted 70% of UK households were already online, and more than eight million people surfed the net using their mobile phones.

Online was the way to deliver public information and services, and for the improved and streamlined administration of those services. "The biggest change now required is that of a shift to outcomes, not specifications and inputs," it said.

The centre set out detailed recommendations as to how this might be achieved. It argued that "informed self-help" was the way to go, helped by knowledgeable civil servants who could advise citizens, using "online live chat" to avoid call centres.

It called for all senior civil servants to receive compulsory training in technology policy and technology. Departments had to appoint board-level CIOs whose main job was to help redesign UK public services using IT.

The government should integrate IT into all its business planning, and not publish "separate, isolated documents that talk about IT as if it is justified in its own right," the centre said.


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