The government’s claim that it will be able to cut thousands of public sector jobs because of better use of IT has been questioned by IT organisations and trade unions.
In last week’s public spending review, chancellor Gordon Brown announced more than 100,000 civil service job losses in an effort to hold down spending while increasing front-line resources.
In Parliament he said he could announce the job losses "precisely because the public sector has invested £6bn in new technology, modernising our ability to provide back-office and transactional services".
However, John McReadie, national officer at civil service union PCS, said, "When Brown talks about the use of IT to take over routine functions it is very general. Our question is, what specifically is the government proposing - complete new systems? Package? Provision? It needs to be more specific.
"As for generalised statements about the use of IT, we have heard it all before. The experience in the civil service is not a good one from the point of view of staff, customers or the taxpayer. The past is littered with billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money wasted on ill-conceived, badly managed and ill-prepared computer systems. Let’s have a bit of meat on the bone."
Glyn Evans, chairman of the information age government group at public sector IT managers’ group Socitm, said such savings were possible in principle but the government needed to drive changes in business processes as well as investing in IT.
"It is not that simple. You cannot just buy IT and it will happen. There is a business case, but it has to be made. You have got to work with changing business processes - IT transformation programmes work in line with breaking down business structures. We need to make sure there is a partnership between IT and the business and that they work together to deliver real benefits. It is going to require change from both sides."
Eric Woods, practice director for analyst group Ovum’s public sector service, said, "The next few years will see unprecedented scrutiny of the real benefits of IT investments in the NHS, the criminal justice system and the new HM Revenue and Customs.
"Our main concern is that the emphasis may be too much on potential savings and not enough on the transformative power of IT investment when coupled with a business change programme."
A new e-government unit will manage the programme to increase efficiency through IT, according to the Gershon Report.
Working with the Treasury, it will create "benchmark standard" government strategies for new electronic services and channels. Departments will need to issue their strategies by December 2004, covering services "that are expected to deliver efficiencies", said the report. The e-government unit is to "identify and prioritise cross-cutting opportunities" for services and systems.