Chancellor Jeremy Hunt gives the magic technology tree a shake

During her ill-fated 2017 general election campaign, prime minister Theresa May told an audience of voters on the BBC that there was no “magic money tree that we can shake to get everything we want”.

After the Spring Budget this week, it seems the government has moved to another orchard. Welcome, everyone, to the magic technology tree.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has predicated a future of strict public sector spending controls on delivering £36bn of savings over the next five years through a “productivity plan” that depends almost entirely on the ability of technology to make government more efficient and hence cheaper to run.

Presumably, Hunt’s confidence in this plan comes from Whitehall’s long track record of *coughs* successfully overhauling the way it works thanks to digital transformation.

The vast majority of those productivity benefits are expected to come from the NHS – £34bn of them, to be precise, through a doubling of spend in digital healthcare thanks to an extra £3.4bn announced in the Budget. Yes, you read that right – that’s an estimated 10 to one return on investment (ROI) ratio.

Surely boardrooms everywhere will now be asking their IT leaders why they aren’t delivering that level of benefits?

Of course, as a former secretary of state for health, Hunt has solid experience to draw on. Remember, for example, when in 2013 he gave £4.2bn to fund a promise of a “paperless NHS” by 2018.

Perhaps he subsequently missed the moment in 2018 when his successor Matt Hancock announced he wanted to ban fax machines in the NHS – of which there remained 8,000 at the time.

Nonetheless, it would be churlish not to acknowledge that digital transformation has delivered genuine benefits to government – of course it has, as it does for most businesses in the private sector. You’d have to be pretty bad to not get any benefits from digital transformation.

But government experience over the past decade shows there are no guarantees, and plenty of ways it can go wrong.

Back in 2015, then chancellor George Osborne gave the Government Digital Service (GDS) its biggest budget boost – £450m, in return for promised savings of £3.5bn over the course of the upcoming parliament.

That cash was used to develop three core programmes – common technology services (CTS), government-as-a-platform (GaaP) and Verify.

The GaaP programme led to some excellent and well-used services such as Pay and Notify. It also led to a few things that didn’t go so well – but overall, it did its bit to contribute to the expected savings.

The original head of CTS, Iain Patterson, quit in 2017. That programme spawned a few projects that are still around – common Wi-Fi across Whitehall offices, for example, and the Crown Hosting Service. But you won’t hear anyone citing CTS as a grand example of cross-government transformation.

And Verify? Well, after spending some £250m on technology that didn’t really work, that died an ignominious death last year, while a further £400m is being spent on its replacement (which is itself meant to save £700m over the next three years – a rather more realistic ROI ratio).

The GDS projects above are just a small set of examples – there are plenty of disastrous digital government projects that regular Computer Weekly readers will be familiar with, and plenty of decent digital services introduced by departments too.

So, you see? This digital transformation stuff is hard. It’s not a magic tree you can shake at will.

As many experts in the field will tell you – all the government is doing is trying to apply digital magic to largely 20th century processes, rather than using the opportunities of technology to transform the way Whitehall works in the hope of delivering a truly radical improvement. But that’s not the sort of thing you’re going to do in a general election year.

But lo – behold there is a whole new branch of the magic technology tree now. Artificial intelligence (AI) is going to do it all! Deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden last year launched i.AI, billed as an internal incubator for using AI to improve productivity and cut costs across government. Dowden said AI is the “closest thing you have to a silver bullet in terms of driving efficiency for the taxpayer”.

(Let’s pause while IT professionals stop laughing at that last quote).

Yes – you no longer need to worry. AI will save us. The best thing you can observe about that right now is that government can say it has definitely not yet had any major, costly disasters with AI projects.

Projects based on algorithms, however – A-level exam marking algorithms during the pandemic, “racist” Home Office visa algorithms, to name just a couple – now those, we know to be worried about. But this is AI – no problems there, right…?

It is far, far better to have a government that recognises the transformational possibilities of technology, than one that does not. But there is no magic technology tree – just the brutal impact of reality. Much of those promised £36bn in public sector productivity savings will, inevitably, have to be found from somewhere else. But that’s another government’s problem.

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