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Government should take a ‘Lego brick’ approach to public services, report says

Report calling for a radical reform of public services says government should open up, standardise processes and stop developing services that already exist

The government needs to “radically rethink” how it delivers public services, with reforms having the potential to save £46bn a year, according to digital experts.

In their manifesto, entitled Manifesto for better public services, and an accompanying greenpaper, a number of digital government experts called on government to reform and modernise the delivery of public services.   

According to the manifesto, the government could save £46bn per year by implementing new digital business models such as “standardising the common building blocks of public services” and creating a community of “shared digital infrastructure and services”.

In what the authors call the most radical reform to public services since William Beveridge founded the modern welfare state, the government needs to change the way it works, according to the manifesto. 

“It’s time for our public sector to focus on delivering better outcomes rather than using technology to paper over the cracks of existing services. It is time to take advantage of the flexibility, scale and efficiency of the internet age,” the manifesto said.

It added that although the government has an increasing focus on digital transformation, it has been applied towards small improvements rather than fundamentally redesigning from the ground up.  

“Public sector bodies are still generally centralised, hierarchical and organisation centric. The way they operate internally is very old fashioned compared with modern internet businesses,” the report said.

“Although many public sector organisations may have moved their paper forms online to a computer screen, most haven’t improved the way they design, operate and deliver their underlying services.

“Technology has often been used simply to automate inefficient old processes and current services – and to make these look cosmetically better at the front end – rather than to rethink, redesign, modernise and improve.”

Stop duplication

One of the key recommendations in the report is that the government stops duplicating and recreating services that already exist. It said because there are so many available systems out there, the government should take advantage of those instead.

This includes “developing your own marketplace”, suggesting the government should instead tap into “an existing service such as eBay or Amazon”.

The manifesto said the government is replicating already existing services across the public sector “in multiple places across many organisations – and all at great cost”.

“Such large-scale duplication of commodity functions and processes offers little or no value to citizens,” the report said.

“We therefore need to radically rethink our ideas about public value and start to ask the hard questions about where – and how – the public sector can better focus its resources. These common functions and processes can instead be consumed securely from the internet – just as we consume movies and online banking and retail services.”

It added that by removing duplication across government, resources could be redirected into frontline services and activities that shouldn’t and can’t be automated, and argued this would “re-empower public servants”.

Co-author Jerry Fishenden said the government really needs to “radically rethink” its ideas about public value and where public sector should focus its resources:  

“The existing large-scale local reinvention of administrative and management functions, processes and systems creates little or no value for frontline workers or citizens,” he said.

“It takes precious resource from the frontline, preventing services from joining up properly to deliver better outcomes for citizens and public sector workers alike.”

Speaking to Computer Weekly during the launch of the manifesto at the Institute for Government, Fishenden said there are really great pockets of innovation in local government and NHS trusts.

“There’s a role for government to encourage that more, and maybe redirect some funding from central initiatives back into the edge. The role of the centre could be spotting the really good ideas happening at a local level and then using potential influence to scale up and roll it out across a wider area,” he said.

Fishenden added that the aim is for the manifesto to “catalyse debate and action, benefiting frontline workers and citizens alike”.  

A Lego government

The manifesto said the government should develop a “Lego brick” approach to public services – in other words, using common capabilities and components.

However, it added that this can only happen if the public sector becomes more “modular, sharing and making use of common, commodity ‘Lego brick’ components to meet their needs”, and called for all the political parties to get on board with reducing duplication and poor service experiences.

“Our public services could standardise and consume many of their common administrative functions and processes by exploiting this shared digital commons, enabling it to grow into a public community of shared digital infrastructure and services. A set of shared, modular ‘Lego bricks’ that can be used in the construction of whatever service and outcome is needed,” it said.

The digital commons will be supported by a public value index – a way to measure the extent to which public sector organisations are standardising and refocusing public value in practice.

“Such an index could be a useful comparator of internet maturity across government, maintaining focus on the benefits to citizens of digitisation, as opposed to tech-based measurements,” it said, adding that services should be redesigned around citizens and staff, rather than organisational structures.

Responding to the report, Lesley Cowley, chair of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA), said while she likes the “Lego analogy”, the standardisation of the common building blocks in public sector is already happening.  

“I have seen services completely redesigned around the customer and some really fundamental changes as a result,” she said, but added that she agrees it needs to move faster and spread more widely.

However, she also argued that the case for simplification itself can be oversimplified. “If you’re Amazon, you can focus on providing services to your core and most profitable demographic. You’re then able to ignore those who want something different,” she said.

“In the public sector, when you provide a service to the entire population, the number of edge cases is potentially huge and cannot be ignored. They can’t go elsewhere, and so your building blocks will inevitably become more complex.” 

Co-author of the report and senior lecturer in information systems at Cambridge Judge Business School, Mark Thompson, said this is a huge opportunity for government.

“The £46bn saving we could achieve by eradicating wasteful administration and duplication is enough to fund an expansion to our frontline workforce of doctors, nurses, police and other key service staff equivalent to the entire population of Birmingham,” he said.

“This is a fantastic chance to modernise the way our public sector works, directing significant resource away from massively duplicated administrative and managerial functions and back into frontline services.”

Read more about digital government

  • The government’s Digital Charter aims to tackle challenges and risks brought by technology in “an effective and responsible way”, thereby boosting the digital economy. 
  • Report on how to promote public sector innovation says there must be a “step change” in government procurement and opportunities must be grasped. 
  • Institute of Directors report says the government’s digital drive has lost momentum and calls on public sector to harness private sector technologies and innovation. 

Read more on IT for government and public sector

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