Yet another government “digital strategy” – are they insane, foolish or timid?

At the beginning of November we were treated to the publication of yet another government digital strategy in which it is claimed that there are savings of £1.7 billion to be had by moving public transactions online.  There is little here we have not seen before.  No doubt it is the best that consultants could provide and at a reasonable price, I’m sure:

“Departments will learn from the expertise of organisations who have successfully undertaken ‘channel shift’ to digital services.”

As I lamented in “How to eat your cake and have it

it’s yet more thrashing around providing more of the same and nothing about trying something different.

That’s despite, as Francis Maude said just a few days later:

“In the last decade our IT costs have gone up – while our services remained patchy. According to some estimates, we spend more on IT per capita than any other government.”

Estimated annual IT spend in the public sector is between £14bn and £20bn.

And with this strategy it’s not looking as if that situation is going to change any time soon. There is nothing about considering the expertise of organisations that choose to relinquish control of the customer channel to those with track record.

It doesn’t offer is a choice or competition-based approach to driving usage and uncovering customer preference; which is strange given the thrust of recent pronouncements suggesting a Darwinian need to adapt.

An analogy for the benefits of choice and competition

There was a time when it was thought that the growth of Tesco was unstoppable but then eventually other supermarkets got their act together and look what’s happening now.

Apparently it’s all about respecting the the customer.

The government sees no need to use choice and competition to drive up demand and drive down costs.  Rather it is building a yet another new “single shop front” in an attempt to aggregate demand into a business case.

There are small glimmers of understanding about doing things differently,  such as in London and where you buy your Oyster card, arising from aggregating the Oyster card with other things you buy in your daily life or as part of your holiday planning leading to better allocation of resources (or ticket office office closures if you prefer) which is continuing over time.

If you’ve not been following the long running story of Whitehall digital strategies you might be thinking that the savings claim seems fairly reasonable.  Read on.

It’s not the first digital strategy, in fact it’s not even the fourth (here’s a short guide to the history of government online efforts) but in general they all largely espouse a desire to party like it’s 1996, when the Green Paper “Government Direct” told us of the intention to:

– provide better and more efficient services to business and citizens
– improve the efficiency and openness of government administration
– secure substantial cost savings for taxpayers

subsequently supplemented by “the single digital domain”  (do they understand how the internet works?) emerging:

–      first as the sunflower yellow “ukonline”

–      then the burnt sienna “directgov”

–      now “”

(I haven’t forgotten CCTA’s 1997 which was a helpful and low cost index and it didn’t make claims to do portals or bundling or customer experience or life episodes).

I expect that much money has been expended on art, design and technology, possibly claiming to provide a more compelling offer.  No doubt there have been suitable acknowledgements of the need to learn lessons.

The business case for doing even more of the same, does not appear to be based on hard cash savings but instead it is an aggregation assessment of the nominal value of the time saved by users.

Government estimates suggest that an hour spent interacting with government costs the average citizen £14.70. Over 250 million transactions are still completed through offline channels every year. If half an hour were saved by digitising every transaction currently completed offline, the total savings to the economy could be up to £1.8 billion.

There’s nothing about reducing hard cash expenditure despite departments being asked to find an extra £5bn in savings in the 2012 autumn statement.

There’s no reason to think that it will not be the usual suspects winning the contracts, part of the oligopoly providing the IT to government.

The ones that, if they were coffee shops, would be criticised for not paying a reasonable rate of corporation tax.

Is there an explanation?

Apparently it was Albert Einstein who defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. He definitely said “any intelligent fool can makes things bigger, more complex. It takes a touch of genius –  and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction”.

This digital strategy (unlike all the other ones?)

 “sets out how government will redesign its digital services to make them so straightforward and convenient that all those who can use them prefer to do so”

Which neatly skips over how that preference is going to emerge. And clearly there’s some work to do, even for the “flagship” on-line service, car tax discs.

At the moment we lag behind,” said Mr Maude. “For example, 74% of people use the internet for car insurance, but only 51% buy car tax online.”

That’s worth a discussion: 74% of law-abiding car owners are prepared to interact on line with car insurance companies, providing identity, details of ownership, location, arrange online payment but only 51% of the same population will interact with government.

Who knows why this is the case?

It’s not easy. Companies spend a lot of time trying to determine consumer preference but there is one difference.  As with the supermarkets discussed above, companies get it right or they fail.  Failure is the ultimate outcome of Darwinian survival of the fittest: just ask Tesco

The public sector never fails (in a market sense) it talks about a failure to get the message across.

Any speculations?

People don’t like banks (I know, Sherlock) yet usage continues to grow.  According to the Oxford Internet Institute online banking usage grew from 45% in 2005 to 60% in 2011.

Is it trust?

According to the latest Cabinet Office research a growing proportion of people are willing and able to use more complex digital services that involve a high level of trust but, it seems, not so much government

What we do know?

  • Government is on the record as stating that the car tax on line saves them 80p despite those that use the service being prepared to pay a much higher fee to use a credit card (isn’t that a tax increase?)
  • Online usage of government services has fallen to those last seen in 2008

Perhaps it’s time for government to try something different?

Learn from Oyster – Stop providing all the infrastructure yourself

Start putting what you do where people go already – perhaps beginning by handing a stack of tax discs to online car insurance companies and do some real market analysis and save some hard cash rather than my nominal £14.70?

A hypothetical example

Banks are not popular but we use them.  They are convenient.  Increasingly banks are trying to sweat their assets.

Increasingly the offer is getting more complex as we are nudged towards self-service and loyalty becomes more difficult to guarantee.

All financial information travels round a “cloud” infrastructure called BACSTEL-IP  This cloud securely connects your bank to government departments.

It’s not too difficult to see how “money manager” or whatever your bank offers could be extended to enable you to prepare your self-assessment tax return, perhaps including a degree of pre-population.  Once you were happy with it, your bank could send the information directly to HMRC without going through government provided infrastructure (websites, government gateway etc.) and use various tools to receive tax bills

and make payments to HMRC while avoiding late penalties.

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