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Role of contemporary technology in future public services

Information technology (IT) has a strategic, positive role to play in the provision of better designed, higher quality and cost-effective public services. But it can also be used in ways that are wasteful, irrelevant or unhelpful – if it remains detached from public service reform and is allowed to inflict changes on our society that are poorly understood.

During a decade of fundamental change, UK public sector technology has remained largely misunderstood, consigned to a “back room” where it has caused increasing problems of cost, efficacy and loss of trust. We seem to have created the worst of all possible outcomes – the world’s most pervasive surveillance society of any democracy and yet few, if any, of the positive benefits to our public services that technology can provide.

The UK is now deeply in debt and faces increasing demands on its public services. The ideal new administration will need to thoroughly revise its understanding of the positive role of contempory technology – and its approach to the design and delivery of the UK’s future public services.

Key principles

  1. Public sector technology should be explicitly integrated into the wider contemporary political, economic, social and moral context. It’s not just about utility: it’s about service, dignity, control and power.
  2. Public sector technology investment has become a strategic asset in the evolution of our public services (… or a strategic liability if we get it wrong).
  3. Public sector technology must be rooted in public needs (not technology fad and fashion), permitting and supporting the essential changes the UK needs.

Some changes enabled by IT will be planned and foreseen, but much will be serendipitous and some will be disruptive. To be credible and effective we have to anticipate this, and support those affected.

Specific recommendations

Things to do

  1. Re-empower the voluntary/community and private sectors and individuals. Place them, not the state, at the centre of public service design.
  2. Revisit and update important (but neglected) government policies on intermediaries, federated trust, citizen choice of channels. And implement them, with clear accountability for delivery.
  3. Move to a presumption that public sector intellectual property and public data should be freely available by default
  4. Move to a presumption of transparency: applied to contracts, budgets, audits, standards, code and formats, meeting minutes, etc
  5. Baseline actual public sector IT expenditure: we need to know how much is really being spent, and whether any benefits are being achieved. Consider the role of the Government Economic Service in establishing a clear method of assessing the value of IT-related expenditure and its benefits to public services.

Stop, challenge or review

  1. Stop spending money on “IT projects” and “ICT Strategies” that have no business sponsor, no clearly articulated public service benefit and which further reinforce the oligopoly supply base or pursue technology for its own sake
  2. Stop designing from the centre outwards, and in particular stop the assumption that the centre knows best what citizens and businesses need
  3. Stop bringing forward IT-related legislation that has not been properly, and independently, reviewed and advised upon by technology policy and IT experts

Continue, support or resume

  1. Continue to encourage local authorities, the third sector, social enterprises and similar intermediaries in the delivery of locally responsive, grounds-up public services
  2. Go with the grain of an increasingly empowered online population

RSS feed of comments 6 Responses to “Role of contemporary technology in future public services”

  1. Martin Howitt says:

    I think we need a recognition that IT on its own delivers no value and that we should discover ways to calculate the value of our investments in IT. Otherwise there’s, um, no value in having an IT strategy – it remains technology and delivery centric.

  2. Fraser says:

    Squeeze the most out of existing technologies.

    Join-up systems.

    Encourage “Digital Development Agencies” that cover all LSP functions for the purposes of scrutiny as written here

  3. william says:

    Fair point Martin. Can we get away with having an IT Strategy which says “IT cant exist in isolation”? We seem to have at the moment an official IT Strategy which has no cross reference to Smarter Government. But it’s waaaaaaaaaaay beyond the scope of this to set the wider policies, and we didnt think it our job to summarise the parties manifestos….

  4. Martin Howitt says:

    @william totally understand that. But to develop (or borrow from management accounting) methods to measure the value that systems bring…I just feel that ought to be in there somewhere.

  5. I can see what you mean in the first three paras, but I think they could be clearer and more balanced. Personally, on the positive side I would stress more the role of IT in enabling new types of service, new forms of organisation and new ways of doing things. On the negative side it is sometimes not clear whether you are getting at badly managed and implemented IT projects or the use of IT to support systems of control/surveillance. I think they are rather different issues and are worth separating. I also think the implication that IT has doing nothing for the public sector is probably something of an exaggeration!!

  6. Please see our Socitm response to the Prime Minister’s speech on Britain’s Digital Future – available for downlaod at A number of the principles that define our response are echoed in the emerging thinking in the ‘Ideal Government IT Strategy’ .

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