It’s a great privilege to be invited to deliver the closing speech at the Connect Conference here in Edinburgh.
I know that representatives from the Scottish government have already been to visit the UK Government Digital Service to understand more about how we operate. And I’m pleased that Mike Beaven, our Transformation Director, is on the programme board of MyGovScot.
But in turn, I look forward to following the development of Scotland’s digital agenda. Because whether it’s using digital opportunities to engage the public and improve the quality of services they use, or growing the digital economy and making the most of big data, there’s much that we can all learn from each other.
It’s difficult to imagine a more exciting venue for this conference than Dynamic Earth, which seeks to explain the natural forces that have shaped the planet – and there are some surprising similarities with the story of government IT:
- back in the beginning there was only darkness: it was a lost world of poor quality digital services; frustrated users; over-burdened taxpayers
- there was a ‘Big Bang’ approach to IT development which sent money and expectations hurtling down the nearest black hole
- and a procurement process so outdated that it belonged with the dinosaurs; which might as well have seen smaller companies as extinct as they were excluded almost by design
- but then the tectonic plates shifted; there suddenly was no money and we were forced to take a giant evolutionary leap….
So today I want to talk a little about our own journey of discovery, and explain how it fits into our wider vision for public services. Because digital government isn’t an end in itself or a standalone project – it’s one of the ways in which we will create comprehensive 21st century services.
And I’m very proud of the work that some brilliant civil servants are doing to lead this transformation. It’s pioneering, it’s world leading – and I want the whole of the UK to be able to share the benefits.
The context: 5 principles for public service reform
The one thing we’ve absolutely demonstrated over the past 4 years is that it is possible to deliver more for the same amount of money; and more and better for less. We’ve disproven once and for all the defeatist consensus that you can’t improve public services without increasing spending.
Although growth is returning to the UK and confidence is building, austerity in public finances is going to be a fact of life for some time to come.
Around the world, governments of all political shades are facing rising public expectations and long term economic challenges. They’re all searching for answers to the same basic question of how to deliver more for less.
There can only ever be 2 responses. The low road of salami slicing departmental budgets to impose top-down savings; or the high road of redesigning public services from the bottom up. In the UK, we took the high road because we believe governments owe it to the public and the taxpayer.
What are the lessons we can draw out from what we’ve done? Well, I belong to the JFDI school of government – Just Do It – but actually after a few years, we realised that we were really applying 5 principles for public service reform to help us meet these challenges. They’re practical, not ideological, but I believe they have wide application.
The first principle is openness, because being transparent builds trust, sharpens accountability and brings improvements. People can compare costs in one place with costs in another.
Our open data portal, Data.gov.uk, is the largest resource of its kind in the world. There are over 14,000 data sets there already, and more data is being added all the time. And that’s supporting a thriving community of digital start-ups and tech-based companies that can use this data as the raw material for new ideas and solutions, new products and services, cultivating new markets and creating new jobs in the process.
The second principle is tight control from the centre over common areas of spend. Controlling discretionary spending helps ensure every penny is spent to maximum effect, by reducing waste, fraud and inefficiency.
In 2012 to 2013 we saved £10 billion through this approach – equivalent to almost £600 for each working household across Britain. We’ve saved money by doing things that all businesses do when times are tough.
But tight control at the centre should be matched by looser control over frontline operations, which is my third principle. We’re strongly supporting the creation of staff-owned mutuals, joint ventures and social enterprises in this country.
We’ve created an entirely new sector of the economy – and it’s thriving. There are now nearly 100 public service mutuals around England – all of them new enterprises – employing between over 35,000 people and delivering around £1.5 billion worth of services.
Fourth, we need a properly innovative culture, so public servants have permission to try sensible new ideas and we can move away from the risk aversion that has sometimes held progress back.
Our programme of civil service reform is seeking to create a culture that is faster and less bureaucratic, focused on the delivery of outcomes, rather than process or structures. In return, public servants will be afforded the training and skills they need with the responsibility to do their jobs and to be accountable for what they achieve.
And the fifth principle – and the one on which I want to concentrate today – is digital by default.
The world leader in digital e-government is Estonia. I once had an opportunity to ask the Estonian Prime Minister why this was. He replied that there were 2 factors in their favour. Firstly, they had no legacy, because when the Russians left they had took everything with them. Secondly, they had no money, which meant they had to do things differently. I replied that in the UK we had managed to replicate the second condition, although we were still burdened with a legacy.
Every so often there comes a point in history when a single, brilliant technical achievement changes everything, almost overnight. Like when James Watt perfected the steam engine, unleashing the railway boom and fuelling the industrial revolution – nothing was ever the same again; or when Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, changing the face of medicine forever. We share a fantastic heritage of Scottish and British innovation and achievement.
The same happened 25 years ago, when Sir Tim Berners Lee – now a member of our open data Transparency Board – invented the World Wide Web. At a stroke it eradicated the concept of distance from global communications.
The private sector was quick to take advantages of the benefits it brings, the public sector less so. Back in 1999, the Modernising Government White Paper proposed that half of government services should be delivered electronically by 2005 and all of them by 2008.
But progress was slow – when the coalition was formed in 2010, we found the quality of online services to be mixed. I recall the old student loan application process. You had to print out a 30 page form, sign it and send it in the post. More dead tree than digital.
But it didn’t have to be like this.
By revolutionising the marketplace, internet companies have shown governments what was possible. People expect government to operate in the same way, providing services tailored to their needs, quickly, conveniently and affordably. It simply doesn’t wash to say that it’s too difficult in government, or that somehow the public sector is a special case. If you can book an international flight in a couple of clicks – cutting through reams of international aviation regulations in the process – then why should it be infinitely more complex to register your vote or renew your passport online? I visited Skyscanner here in Scotland earlier today – they process huge numbers of complex travel transactions, dwarfing the volume of transactions in government.
So back in 2010 we decided that’s exactly what we’d provide. Hassle-free digital services, so easy and convenient to use that people would choose to do so.
We started with GOV.UK: a single website for all government information and services.
In March it reached over 50 million visits in a calendar month for the first time. And last year it beat off the Shard and the Olympic cauldron to win the Design Museum’s Design of the Year Award.
It’s been successful not because of its complexity or intricacy. Quite the opposite: it’s clear, consistent and uncluttered. GOV.UK is successful because it’s based on a simple principle that it the public shouldn’t need to understand where the role of one department ends and another starts to find what they’re looking for. They want a simple answer to a simple question, and that’s what they get.
It’s about putting the needs of the user above all other considerations. Only when you find out what people want, how they want it delivered and how they intend to use it do you even begin to think about designing the service or building the technology.
It’s an iterative process – building and testing in small chunks and working quickly to make improvements along the way.
And this is a 360 degree revolution to how things used to be done.
In the old world, we were procuring programmes before they had been designed – or over such a long period of time that the technology was out of date before it was delivered. The first the public would see of them was when they went live – by which time it would be too late, or too expensive to make significant changes.
Now we’ve moved on to transactional services, starting with a first wave of 25 exemplars.
The first to go live was the new student finance application. It was delivered from Glasgow, thanks to a partnership between the Student Finance Company and Sopra, a small technology firm with offices here in Scotland.
This service has been followed by the lasting power of attorney, which went live last month. Coping with dementia is increasingly a priority for health policy throughout the UK. We want to encourage more people to plan ahead for an uncertain future and we can do this by making easier and quicker for people to appoint others to take decisions for them if they lose mental capacity.
Another exemplar, Individual Electoral Registration, will go live next week. The electoral register has been around since 1832. The old system required the “head of household” to submit an application – an outdated concept that left many individuals unregistered. So people will now be required to register to vote individually. It is a simple one-step process of being verified against existing records, by providing your name, address, date of birth and national insurance number. It’s no more difficult than online shopping online – which is absolutely as it should be.
As these examples show, we’re not merely creating digital services – we’re designing a digital government for the future; truly 21st century services, capable of meeting the needs and aspirations of the British people now and in the future.
We know much more money can be saved – staggering savings potentially – while actually improving quality online. The cost of digital services are 20 times lower than over the phone, 30 times lower than by post and 50 times lower than face-to-face.
Digitalising public services could save citizens, the Exchequer and businesses £1.2 billion over the course of this Parliament, rising to an estimated £1.7 billion each year after 2015.
But digital government isn’t just about saving money or cutting the deficit, vital as both those tasks are. It’s also about stimulating new businesses and ideas that can push the UK economy further forward.
The best technology and digital ideas often come from small beginnings.
But at the time of the last election just 6% of central government’s procurement was with small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Government instead relied on a small group of large, multi-national suppliers – and we were paying top dollar for yesterday’s technology.
We owe it to the taxpayer to find the best deal possible. A vibrant, competitive economy, made up of businesses of all sizes, offers choice to public sector customers. This can mean better services for the public at lower cost to the taxpayer. And large companies benefit from a diverse supplier base as much as government does.
So we’ve published our IT red lines which we’re pretty militant about enforcing:
- no IT contracts will be allowed to exceed £100 million, without a powerful reason
- new hosting contracts will not last for more than 2 years – why would you want them to last any longer when the cost of hosting halves every 18 months
- no automatic contract extensions without a compelling case
- companies with a contract for service provision will not be allowed to provide system integration in the same part of government; disaggregation brings about much greater transparency in contracts
We’ve also created the G-Cloud framework. It’s an open market where public sector organisations can purchase cloud-based IT off the shelf.
For suppliers, there’s less hassle to register. For buyers, it means faster procurements. The legal terms and conditions are simpler because suppliers sell on their own terms, and it’s always open, with new suppliers joining every 6 months.
It levels the playing field for SMEs so they compete and win against their larger competitors, not because we favour them unfairly, but on the strength of their merits.
We want the best possible services, designed around the need of users, at the lowest possible cost. We’re not biased against large suppliers: when larger companies prioritise innovation and offer powerful solutions for government of course they will be considered.
The public sector has already spent more than £175 million through the G-Cloud - half of which, 60%, is going to SMEs.
I’m pleased that there are a number of Scottish companies already benefitting:
- like Stirling-based Swirrl IT that provides Cloud consultancy to the Department for Communities and Local Government
- Opin Systems and Visionware in Glasgow, working with the Department for International Development and Rural Payments Agency, respectively
- Farrpoint Ltd, based here in Edinburgh, working with local authorities through the CloudStore
The fifth iteration of the G-Cloud went live last month. It brought the total number of suppliers on CloudStore to 1,518, and 88% of these are SMEs.
And we’ve committed to spend a further £100 million with small businesses offering IT services and technology to government by next year.
Cyber security is one of the areas offering huge growth opportunity: Britain must be at the forefront of this.
In the last year I’ve met with some of my international counterparts. From Israel and India to Spain and South Korea, I’ve seen how highly regarded British technological expertise and innovation is overseas – especially when it is allied to the international reputations of our great universities, which again is crucial.
This is something that we’re good at – a strength for Scotland, a strength for Britain – and we need to exploit it and make the most of it to create jobs and wealth, and to protect our economy so that Britain is seen as a safe place to do business.
We want to be exporting £2 billion worth of products and services by 2016 – that’s a sharp increase on the £850 million that we sold last year – and we’ve produced the first Cyber Exports Strategy which sets out how we will help to achieve that.
Of course, as more and more data is being generated, new types of computing power give the ability to reap its true value.
The massive volumes of data created as a by-product of digital transactions offer opportunities for better public services and greater government efficiency, and for economic growth. McKinsey has said that across Europe data could be worth £250 billion – the EU says £140 billion – either way, an eye-watering amount.
So we launched the Open Data Institute, to incubate new start-up companies that could use this data as a raw material.
We look forward to working with the Scottish government to further our shared commitment to transparency through the UK’s OGP national action plan and other avenues.
So, in conclusion, by using smaller suppliers and building much more capability from within, the UK government is undergoing a digital transformation – not just in how we deliver and procure services but how we design them too.
It offers the public a remarkable proposition – faster, more convenient services, tailored around the public’s needs; delivered at lower cost to the taxpayer, and in a way that boosts some of Britain’s most innovative and exciting businesses.
It’s an opportunity that everyone in the UK can benefit from.
I’m proud that the UK is already one of the most digitally advanced nations in the world. But we can’t be complacent, even for a moment. Where we have expertise – and we do – we want to share it, and where we need to improve, we’re ready and eager to learn.