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The government could make savings of up to £2bn by 2020, by getting its digital affairs in order, according to a new report from the Institute for Government.
The independent charity's report noted that while there have been a handful of success stories in recent years, the larger transformation efforts continue to disappoint.
“In May 2016, 1.3 million people registered to vote online,” the report stated. “Paper tax discs in windscreens are a thing of the past; so, one day, might be tax returns.”
“But, given a history of faltering or failed information technology (IT) projects – from e-borders, to electronic patient records, to the first phase of Universal Credit – government cannot take for granted that it will be able to realise these benefits. Since the year 2000, over £10bn has been spent on government IT projects that did not provide their intended benefits.”
Daniel Thornton, one of the report’s authors, said that a top-down transformation was needed if the true benefits of digital were to be realised.
“Tinkering around the edges of digital government has taken us only so far – now we need a fundamental change in the government’s approach,” he said. “The starting point is recognising that digital is not just for geeks anymore – everyone in government must work to make it a success.”
“There are huge potential savings to be made if the Government gets this right – which makes it all the more disappointing that the PM and Chancellor have not been as explicit about their commitment to digital government as their predecessors,” he added.
The report focused on five key areas of government: HMRC and the DVLA, two departments that have a high volume of customer facing digital transactions; as well as UK Trade & Investment (UKTI), the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Parliament.
The report, titled 'Making a success of digital government', also lambasted the government for extending legacy IT contracts.
“Under the spending controls process, no new large, single-supplier IT contracts will be signed, but as yet few of the existing contracts have been replaced.”
Last week, the Home Office extended its contract with Fujitsu until 2018, flying in the face of the commitment to put an end to huge deals with single suppliers. The deal, which was due to expire in the first quarter of 2017, is one of its largest IT contracts on the government’s books, and has been in place for 16 years.
The Home Office released a statement indicating that the extension of the contract was a stopgap measure, rather than a lack of commitment to new spending policies.
“We are ending the culture of awarding large IT contracts to single suppliers and instead working towards smaller, more flexible agreements with a broader list of companies,” the statement said. “As we make this change, it is important we ensure a smooth transition to these new services.”
The Institute for Government concluded that for government to make the necessary transformation, the digital agenda would need to be driven from the very top.
“At present, that leadership is not in place. GDS is under new management, and it will take some time to solidify their approach to cross-government digital change. Government itself is under new management, with a new set of ministers,” the report said.
“We have reached a tipping point. If the leadership does not emerge to drive the changes, there is a risk that digital teams will continue to be viewed as website designers, brought in only at the very end of policy design processes.”