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Digital services not saving government departments money, says NAO

Government departments are not making the savings digital services were aiming to deliver

Many government departments are not making the savings they expected from adopting digital services, according to the National Audit Office (NAO). 

A report on central government staff costs by the NAO stated that many departments were aiming to make savings by using digital services to reduce their workforce, but had not seen the results they had planned for.

“The government expects digital services to reduce staff costs by processing transactions efficiently and introducing more customer self-service,” said the report.

“To help kick-start digital services, departments have been developing and implementing digital exemplars. However, we have seen little evidence that departments are making the expected savings.”

In the Cabinet Office’s 2012 Digital Strategy, it was claimed departments could be saving up to £1.7bn a year by moving public transactions online.

It was predicted that this digital delivery would help to deal with government cuts, and it was estimated that by 2015 the civil service would be 23% smaller than it was five years ago, reduced to 380,000 staff.

But the NAO found the civil service headcount has only reduced by 18% in that time, to 405,000 civil servants at the end of 2014. This raises questions about the capability of the “digital by default” mantra to deliver the savings promised.

These aren’t the only issues raised surrounding the digital by default scheme set in motion by the Government Digital Service (GDS).

Read more about digital by default

  • MPs have slammed the government’s decision to make rural payment claims from farmers a digital by default service.
  • The Science and Technology Committee (STC) questions Francis Maude over how much the digital by default strategy can save the taxpayer.

Only 36% of civil servants believed their department had the necessary skills to achieve the digital plans it has laid out, and just 26% claimed to have seen progress in the digital agenda, the report stated.

But the NAO found that government departments are employing more high-level workers as they try to introduce new ways of working and address the need for digital skills, increasing the cost per head of employees.

Concerns have been raised over the implementation of the digital by default programme, with some asking whether the GDS should invest its £50m budget for digital by default in helping more vulnerable users and developing a more government-as-a-platform approach.

Read more on IT for government and public sector

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Twenty years ago Arno Penzias (Nobel prize winner and then head of Bell Labs) told PITCOM (in its hey-day) that Computing/IT never made anyone redundant. But, properly used, it made whole functions redundant. A decade later Sir Peter Gershon said that without the motivations to make "real" change his 10% efficiency savings were impossible. With the motivation savings of 30- 50% could be made. Both were right.
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