Time to say what we want from Government IT

FIPR has issued a call by Ideal Government for suggestions as to “what we want from government IT”. yesterday I pointed out that those promoting on-line services commonly ignore the cost of the time we spend trying to access them. However, we need to do rather more than “merely” transform the quality of current public sector on-line services if we are to use IT to help make the savings and service improvements needed to help HMG balance its books.     

Other respondents to the FIPR challenge are likely to focus on improving take-up by providing faster, more reliable and consistent access to integrated systems designed around user needs. But success also requires re-engineering communications networks, operating systems, browsers, malware filters and authentication routines to remove the bottlenecks and delays that lie between the user and the application. 


As the UK population ages we face a rapidly growing need to ensure that services can be 

accessed by those with impaired dexterity, eyesight or hearing who cannot readily use a keyboard, read a screen or hear a call centre message. That means making better use of the time of the carers and others who currently help them achieve access. Immediate savings and service improvements would come from giving data mobiles to those in front-line of service delivery, such as carers and health visitors, to not only do their own paperwork when visiting those unable to go on-line themselves, but also to transact for them.


A recent EURIM briefing meeting for political candidates was given an example of a deceptively simple application (based on giving Blackberries to health visitors) where payback was inside 14 days!       


There are many such applications. Rationalising access routines to enable trusted intermediaries to do more of those relevant to their clients could compound the savings available from piecemeal improvement. The issue is to start and manage a process of incremental improvement – without getting sidetracked by grandiose ambitions.


But, if government really does wish to cut 30% or more out of its delivery overheads the obvious way is to revive, restructure and build on its oldest channel of two-way communications with its citizens. The person in most regular contact with those who do not have a regular visit from a trusted carer or health visitor is the postman. He is also the person most likely to deliver that which cannot be transmitted electronically to the rest of us.


We need to take a long-overdue joined-up view of how to make better use of security-vetted Royal Mail and Sub-Post Office staff as the nations’ largest, most socially and geographically inclusive network of trusted intermediaries.


The sub-post office is the obvious first point of contact for those who can walk but cannot themselves use a screen, keyboard or telephone. In parallel we should look at issuing mobiles (Blackberries or equivalent) to postmen so that they can bring the sub-post office, (ideally including cash and paying in facilities), to those who cannot walk.


That will entail reversing the process of turning Postman Pat, pillar of the local community, into White Van Man, deskilled and demotivated other than to meet a delivery target.


The prospective savings to the taxpayer are immense but the obstacles should not be under-estimated: particularly the three-way power struggles between national top down hierarchies that bedevilled previous attempts at modernising the Post Office as a first stop shop for public services. Allowing transformation to be driven from the bottom up might, however, enable a process of accelerating incremental change to be delivered on positive cash flow – and on the basis of co-operation, respect and responsibility for front-line staff and shared benefits.


So what might be done to start the process?


1) Allow sub-postmasters to contract individually or collectively with local authorities and others (e.g. banks and payment and delivery services) to deliver any service that does not compromise their integrity – even though it might be outside (or even in competition with) those contracted to Royal Mail.


2) Allow Royal Mail management freedom to similarly contract locally and regionally (not just nationally) for services that use their communications and distribution networks and will help fund upgrading, investment and in-house skills development at all levels – copying the Dutch and Germans in their interpretation of state aid rules..


3) Bring together the Whitehall Silos (particularly BIS, DWP, HMRC, Home Office, Justice and Treasury) perhaps via the CIO Council, to take a holistic view of the cost of delivering secure public services to those who cannot reasonably be expected to go on-line.


I was one of the team that worked on the Telecoms Liberalisation and Privatisation studies in the late 1970s but British Rail was a privatisation too far. That of the Post Office would be more likely to delay than to expedite the change and flexibility needed to help secure real change in local public service delivery.


Such change will undoubtedly require the imaginative use of ICT. But it is unlikely to happen if the traditional routines of large-scale, centralised procurement are followed – with all their diseconomies of delay and scale.


Perhaps the most important role for HMG is to rebuild the in-house ICT skills of the public sector, including as an intelligent customer, following good practice with regard to transparent procurement, open standards, inter-operability and the re-use of publicly funded IPR.


A close second is to remove the obstacles to upgrading our communications networks: beginning with the way that the business rates deter investment in world-class local access. 


We should however, also remember the massive savings available from simply switching off all those hierarchies of reporting systems that are not based on collecting and validating information at the point of transaction. Many were designed to support bonuses for meeting ministerial targets (as opposed to patient or client needs). They could and should be swept away as part of a comprehensive demolition of the top down initiativitis culture.


Then there are the savings (and motivational benefits) from a radical simplification of tax and benefit systems, with flexibility handled by manual over-ride rather than automated complexity. Those in most need of public sector support have chaotic lives, lurching from crisis to crisis with interludes of calm: when their needs might evaporate but for the need to refund tax credits at a time when they might have a chance of escaping from dependency.   


I want rather a lot from Government IT – but I will settle for “confining its ambitions to what can be safely delivered by the staff currently in post or being recruited or trained”.


Given the hollowing out of the delivery teams of central government over two decades of outsourcing, that is incremental change only – until the staff development programmes currently being planned have bourn fruit.