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Maude Launches Government Digital Strategy: FT Innovate 2012

Petr Vaclavek
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We will make public services agile, flexible and digital by default, says Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude

The UK government will be making its online services so straightforward and convenient that all those who can use them will “prefer to do so”, according to the new  Government Digital Strategy, launched by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude.

Maude unveiled the strategy at the Financial Times Innovate 2012 event in London, a high-profile conference dedicated to Big Data and emerging technologies.

Digital by Default

the Digital Strategy is meant to ensure that the UK is not left behind in the digital revolution, said Maude: “According to some estimates, we spend more on IT per capita than any other government,” he said, while admitting that the quality of service remained “patchy”. Maude also remembered costly IT failures of the past, no doubt referring to the projects like the NHS National Programme for IT.

Francis Maude Home Office Digital StrategyAccording to the Cabinet Office minister, IT projects undertaken by the government in the past were too big, too dependent on big vendors and constrained by long-term contracts which were negotiated when the Internet was still a new and unfamiliar thing. As a result, they had problems with usability, and were unreasonably expensive. Maude remembered that on one occasion, the bill for changing a single word on a government website had come to £15,000.

At the moment, many people are happy to use Facebook, Twitter and Internet banking but they still prefer to interact with the government by telephone or post. Meanwhile the Digital Efficiency Report, also published today, has found that the average cost of a digital transaction with the government can be almost twenty times lower than the cost of a telephone call and thirty times lower than face-to-face.

Maude said that the Conservative government has learned from the mistakes of its predecessor, and understands the importance of digital services. The new Digital by Default strategy includes several large projects, not least among which is the new – a single website for all government services, which replaced DirectGov and Business Link last month.

Maude acknowledged that one of the primary concerns here is  the cost – is estimated to save the UK £36 million a year, rising to around £50 -70 million when more services are added to the portal. But even more important is the convenience and simplicity. The site  has been designed around users, and the initial feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

Now, Maude wants to apply the same approach to other parts of the government infrastructure and redesign every service which has over 100,000 transactions each year. The core policies of the Digital Strategy will be followed by departmental digital strategies, to be published in December, with the overall savings expected to be in the range from £1.7 to 1.8 billion annually.

The current government has already launched plenty of projects that could fit into the new plan. For example, the overall number of government websites has been reduced by 74 in the last year alone. And fewer websites means less money spent. As an example, Maude mentioned a resource dedicated to British mosquitoes.

Open Standards, adopted last week, are yet another stepping stone in the Digital Strategy. This set of policies was designed to make public sector IT cheaper, more transparent and better connected through the use of Open Source solutions.

Finally, there’s the Open Data initiative, which offers free access to over 40,000 datasets from sources such as weather stations, transport providers and the NHS. Website hosting this information – – is currently the largest open data resource in the world. “Data is the raw material in the digital age,” said Maude.

He also reminded the conference that this work is going to continue in earnest after the Open Data Institute, led by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, opens its doors later this year.

“The public sector has really lagged behind the private sector when it came to exploiting new technologies, new innovations – and the data opportunity in a Digital Age. We are not now where we need to be,” said Maude.

“But we do intend to catch up – in fact we intend to set a standard for other Governments. We will make public services agile, flexible and digital by default. We will open up to new ideas, new businesses – we will open up our data reserves.

“And this digital-savvy Government will benefit service users, benefit businesses and benefit the taxpayer,” he concluded.

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  1. Comment received from Julian David, Director General of Intellect, the UK’s trade association for the technology sector:

    “The positive and collaborative relationship between Government and the technology industry has been a major driver in ensuring that the UK has one of the most connected and secure economies in the world. It has already delivered world class digital innovation in the shape of Electronic Vehicle Licensing, Oyster Cards, HMRC online revenue and tax services and more. As an industry, we will help towards the successful execution of a Digital Strategy.

    “As the strategy makes clear, moving services to digital channels provides a fantastic opportunity to improve service delivery, drive significant cost savings and create a platform for future economic growth. The Government’s new strategy sets out a number of proposals that will help drive change across Whitehall. The challenge of course now is ensuring they are implemented.

    “Through its Public Sector Council, Intellect plays an active role in supporting the government’s strategy to improve digital skills and we strongly support the focus on improving digital capability across departments. We also endorse the move to ensure that there is an active digital leader on departmental boards and the intention to offer leaner and more lightweight tendering processes.

    “As the strategy stresses, there are still around 18% of people who have either never used or rarely use the Internet. In going to a digital by default model, we must ensure that all UK citizens have access to the services, thereby making the assisted digital programme a critical ingredient of the digital strategy.”

  2. Industry groups clearly like this one. Another comment we have received, from BCS:

    Phillip Webb, Chair of BCS Government Relations Group, says: “The strategy is a welcome move by government. It has the potential to not only deliver services more economically but also meet the demands of our digital society.

    “It is important however, that we ensure that everyone who needs to use the government’s services can do so easily in whatever format they wish. There are still a lot of people who have not used the internet and we need to help them understand the opportunities open to them and also reassure them that they won’t be disadvantaged.”

    The Institute also believes that the move to digital by default will intensify the demand for IT skills within government, not just among the professionals in the sector, but among the staff who use technology at the front line.

    Phillip adds: “The government needs talented IT professionals to develop and implement high quality online services. They need a firm grasp of what technologies can do, how the public are using them and how it all relates to the demands on a service. It’s also highly important that there are skills to manage data security; the amount of data government holds on individuals, much of it sensitive, makes this one of the most important elements of any online service.”

    Digital by default is not just about government ambitions: a recent study by Accenture showed that the majority of people questioned said they were likely to use various digital public services, and for most categories more said they were “unsure” than “unlikely”. It reflects the fact that people’s expectations of how they obtain public services are going to change, in line with how they interact in other areas of their lives.