Government plans to make on-line services the default or even mandatory make sense only if accompanied by rigorous action to ensure we all have Internet access that is fit for purpose. The Victorians understood this. Antony Tollope spend years in trains and on horseback, investigating rural postal services. One result was the Barchester Chronicles. Another result was the Royal Mail contracts that help pull through investment in “high speed” (in some cases higher than today’s speeds) rail services. We need similar “vision” today.
I would therefore like to make couple of Swiftian “modest proposals”,. I remind you that Trollope spent several years in Ireland as a postal inspector. The aim is to link the Government’s Broadband and “More for Less” Public Service Delivery strategies
1) Victorian style, open competition contracts to support a rural “post office” (alias one-stop-shop for all public services) in every community with more than xxx residents and to provide it with a fibre link direct to the G-Cloud.
and, to help concentrate the mind of Treasury on the need to expedite progress,
2) Those more than x miles from a “post office” manned by a human being who will help them gain access to public services, to be exempted from the community charge and/or income tax after 2015.
The “post office” might be based in the school, church, chapel or pub and provide payment and parcel services for those other than Royal Mail.
The contracts should be local (so that each is below the EU procurement limit with electronic bidding processes used to keep the costs down) because while BT, Virgin, Cable and Wireless or Sky and others should be able to serve most current communities and their “post offices” (including those they already serve) at negligible marginal cost, they have a massive investment task ahead to overcome the current need for bandwidth rationing (alias traffic management) over their current networks. They should not be expected to cross subsidise those they cannot economically serve by making “average csot” bids.
Meanwhile shared community networks (available for use by all-comers as across much of Scandinavia or in countries like Roumania) may well offer more cost effective routines for meeting the needs of those not already served – as well as opening up supposedly “natural monopolies” to competition to provide world class access to content.
More-over the competiton should be open to others besides Royal Mail because the cost of cross-subsidising one-stop-shop services in rural areas and deprived communities, let alone serving the sick and elderly who are in most need of public services, does not fit well with their current national cost-reduction negotiations with Government.
I did say this was a Swiftian Modest Proposal .
It does, however, has a better chance of delivering “more for less” than some of those allegedfely being considered within Whitehall
P.S. References to On-line Driving License renewal as a flagship should recognise that its success demonstrates shows that about a 40% of us are content to pay £2.50 extra for the privilege of helping HMG save 80p! I live barely 50 yards from a Bank and 200 yards from a Post Office. But for the queues in both, it would nearly always take me less time to transact with a human being than it does on-line – thanks to poor response times, bloatware and the need to look up security codes that I have fogotten. The Driving License renewal is one of the few cases where that is not the case.
More-over the story of how the system came to be as it is has lessons for those who are serious about partnership between the public and private sectors to bring about dramatic reductions in cost and improvements in services on all sides. It also illustrates the problems that need to be addressed – including the need to work more closely with the private sector on removing the increased opportunities for widescale automated fraud that are being opened up as public services are moved on-line with little or no attempt to preserve the “physical reality” checks that are an essential part of any serious audit process. These are already said (look at the Fraud Authority analyses) to cost HMG rather more than the savings being predicted.