G2010 conference: Government IT successes and disappointments

Government IT is a "serious disappointment" despite the billions spent on technology and services every year, says an expert commentator on the public...

Government IT is a "serious disappointment" despite the billions spent on technology and services every year, says an expert commentator on the public sector.

William Heath spoke at the recent Government 2010 conference in London of the "gap between the rhetoric and the results".

Heath founded Kable, a public-sector IT research business. He also chairs the Open Rights Group and is on the advisory council of the Foundation for Information Policy Research.

More than £12bn is spent each year on public sector IT. Heath gave examples of some successes, such as Martha Lane Fox's work on getting millions of disadvantaged people online.

But he added, "Government IT up to 2009 contains serious disappointments. One is the cost of IT and the manner in which the money is spent but much bigger than that is the cost of public services and the extent to which IT has or has not been able to modernise.

"Productivity in the public services this year is lower than it was in 1998. Furthermore, it has been lower than it was in 1998 for every year since 1998, despite the massive spend on public sector IT."

In November 2005 the then prime minister Tony Blair announced "Transformational Government - enabled by technology" which set out plans to use IT to improve access by the public to government services.

But Heath suggested transformational government has had so little effect that he had "forgotten what it had promised".

One of the government's promises was that "100% of [public] services should be available online by 31 December 2005" - a promise which was withdrawn in 2004.

Heath added that the Department for Work and Pensions is the largest provider of public services in Whitehall, but only 0.002% of its transactions were carried out online.

He cited several important developments. Heath lauded Gordon Brown's decision to ask Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, to advise on how to make more government information accessible to the public. He also praised Wikileaks, Young Rewired State, and Mysociety, which he said were "reasons to be cheerful".

He proposed that government data on citizens be made more accurate and useful by allowing people to own their own records and keep them up to date.

"We need to let go of organisation-centric hubris. We need to let go our fear of chaos which is ill-founded and counter productive. We need to add this person-centric model of personal data management to the existing organisation-centric model In the longer term it could deliver spectacular value, much bigger than half of the government IT spend."

There would be a large saving on data administration because of the DIY-approach of citizens adding and checking information. Government data would thus be better reconciled, more accurate, better refreshed, de-duplicated, and up to date.

He accepted though that there are limitations. "You don't want people maintaining their own criminal records," he added.

A video of Heath's talk is on the G2010 website.

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