Government details digital approach to budget challenge
Treasury and Cabinet Office to work together as "corporate centre" to support digital departmental reform under new efficiency agenda
The government has identified accelerating a shift towards departmental cloud computing and open application programme interfaces (APIs) as being key to delivering a digital strategy capable of supporting efficiency aims and curbing expenditure up to the end of the decade.
In his latest spending review released this week, Chancellor George Osborne announced the government's aims to drive £10bn in savings for the 2017/18 financial year before ensuring between £15bn and £20bn in reduced Whitehall costs by the end of the decade.
To meet these spending aims, the proposed efficiency and reform agenda for the next parliament identifies digital services, a reduced government estate and ongoing overhauls to procurement, project management and operational delivery as the key areas to reducing waste in Whitehall.
"HM Treasury and Cabinet Office will work together as the corporate centre to support departments to continue their programme of reform and to deliver future spending consolidations," said the strategy document.
"Spending controls will remain in place, and evolve in time to strong functional standards, while departments will need to own more of the transformation agenda."
Central bodies such as the Government Digital Service (GDS), the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) and the Major Projects Authority (MPA) would be vital in supporting these aims across all Whitehall departments, according to the reform plan.
The government's strategy highlighted digital innovation in order to transforming how the public interact and obtain key services as a notable driver in reducing its costs overall.
"We will move from just putting services online to a 'Government as a platform' (GaaP) digital model, exemplified by our GOV.UK Verify programme that provides identity assurance for our online services," said the strategy document.
"By accelerating the move of IT services into the cloud we will ensure civil servants have the most modern, Internet-based technology. We want nine out of ten of the online public to use our digital public services by 2020. To boost innovation, we will open up the secure interfaces - the APIs - of our digital services."
According to the government, adopting a more open standards approach to its APIs would allow "others" to be able to integrate operations to public services, potentially allowing an individual to purchase car insurance at the same time they obtain their tax through GOV.UK.
Digital service ambitions
Despite a 1999 White Paper targeting making all government services being provided electronically by 2008, the reform report said that by 2010, digital offerings were found to largely involve printing forms that could then be sent via post.
Yet under its current strategy, the government claimed that its ongoing shift towards digital services - such as the 25 exemplars originally aimed to be live by March next year - would allow it to shut down potentially costly offline channels.
"It will release property as well as make savings from IT procurement," said the strategy document.
To ensure it is on course to meet these digital ambitions, the government has set out a number of targets that include:
- Improving the ease with which payments can be made to the government online, especially through mobile devices - with the common payments platform being made available by 2016.
- Simplifying how government applications such a passport renewals or driving licence applications can be tracked online.
- Making every new digital service available via open APIs and web browsers to encourage private sector innovation and nominate a government chief data officer to define open standards.
Responding to the strategy, the Policy Exchange think-tank said that it was important that the government's digital efforts were driven by an interest in transforming its technology towards efficient systems, rather than simple cost cutting, so it could fulfill the mantra of "doing more for less".
Taking the existing work of the GDS in trying to create a single hub for all government information and services under GOV.UK, Eddie Copeland, head of technology policy for the think-tank, expressed concern about insuring back office systems could cope with this demand.
He said while there had been a significant focus on providing a user-friendly front-end to GOV.UK for accessing services, the resulting increase in demand would put signficant pressure on ensuring back-office systems were able to support all queries without the need for wide-scale intervention from civil servants or programmers.
From a wider public sector viewpoint, Copeland noted the government's aims to support open APIs to share service technology, claiming it would be vital that all local authorities, emergency services and healthcare providers had a voice in the debate over the centre's role in defining open standards.
He added that the government needed to take a pragmatic approach to set out its own remit for how it helped to influence wider development of public services and how it shared its technology to encourage innovation, without compromising local autonomy in terms of the needs of different authorities.