Spending review will show how - or if - digital is the future of the public sector

November 25th is highlighted in red ink for any IT leader in the public sector. That’s the day the chancellor, George Osborne, reveals the winners and losers in the 2015 spending review, which determines how much cash each department, agency and council gets to spend over the next five years.

We know Osborne is looking for significant cuts – on top of the significant cuts of the last five years. Some departments have already agreed to 30% reductions in budget, others will see even more.

We know, for example, that the Department for Health has asked for as much as £5.6bn for technology improvements. Much as everyone in the NHS acknowledges that digital offers huge potential to improve efficiency and cut costs, observers would have to question whether such a sum will be awarded in the midst of all the other funding crises in the health service.

We know, too, that the Government Digital Service (GDS) has submitted four key bids for funding – to cover its government as a platform strategy; the Verify identity assurance programme; for rolling out better end-user technology across Whitehall; and for GDS itself.

It’s notable that GDS itself is subject to a separate bid to the three cross-government initiatives – a clear suggestion that those three projects could go ahead even if GDS sees a cut in its funding. Rumours continue that GDS will be a lot smaller in size as a result of the spending review, as departments pick up more of the digital transformation work. We will find out on the 25th.

IT chiefs in local government will be most nervous. Most of them have suffered five years of huge cuts, and are expecting more. It seems clear that Whitehall expects a more radical rethink of how councils deliver services than simply salami slicing costs from the way they currently work. Huge question marks remain over the ability and willingness of the sector to respond.

HM Revenue & Customs perhaps demonstrates the challenges for their peers. The tax collector announced plans to shut 137 offices and move to 13 regional centres by 2021 – a move enabled by its digital investments. But unions have reacted, not surprisingly, with horror to the likely scale of job cuts.

From civil servants to ministers to David Cameron, we hear talk of how digital will be central to meeting Osborne’s tough targets. Very soon we find out just how critical it will be.

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