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Digital government ‘manifesto’

A new blueprint for modernisation of public services outlined by Dr Mark Thompson of Cambridge Judge Business School aims to save £46 billion a year in order to hire one million frontline workers.

London, England, UK - May 3, 2014: London's skyline at Dawn. Taken from the roof tops, some of London's most iconic sights can be seen such as The Shard, Millennium Wheel, Big Ben, Canary Wharf, St Paul's Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and Parliament Square.

Dr Mark Thompson

Dr Mark Thompson

“A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching,” wrote William Beveridge, the ‘father’ of the modern British welfare state, in 1942. His landmark Beveridge Report of 1945 led to sweeping post-war welfare legislation, streamlining the seven different government departments involved in processing and providing cash benefits to boost efficiency.

More than 70 years later, a new “Manifesto for Better Public Services” was introduced this week to take advantage of the Internet revolution by eliminating similar duplication and waste in public services. The manifesto was unveiled at the Institute of Government in London by Mark Thompson, University Senior Lecturer in Information Systems at Cambridge Judge Business School.

The initiative calls for using a “Lego block” approach to services in which government departments utilise off-the-shelf “plug and play” systems that are increasingly readily available over the internet, rather than spending time and money to develop bespoke systems for each department. These “commodity”-type systems would handle such functions as licensing, booking, registration, payments and case management.

If properly implemented, says Mark, the plan can eventually save £46 billion a year and thus fund an additional labour pool of one million key workers in frontline services ranging from teaching to healthcare and policing.

“Forward-thinking organisations around the world are using digital technology to become more efficient and offer their customers better services,” says Mark. “On the face of it there is absolutely no reason why government cannot do the same – but it will need to be willing to think about reorganising itself more radically than it has been to date.”

Taking a page from Beveridge, Mark argues that government too often “patches” up problems using 20th century systems and approaches – rather than rethinking and redesigning service provision for radically different, Internet-enabled times.

Among other proposals, the new manifesto and accompanying Green Paper – authored by Mark Thompson and two colleagues, Jerry Fishenden of tech consultancy Stance Global and Will Venters of the London School of Economics – calls for:

  • Moving all public sector organisations and their suppliers to open book accounting, thereby publishing data, roles, functions and costs in order to highlight duplication and inefficiency between organisations.
  • Establishing a “Public Value Index” that would allow citizens to assess expenditure against value criteria, so we can better understand what “good services” and outcome are from the perspective of both citizens and key workers.
  • Creating a shared digital public infrastructure by mirroring successful organisations like Amazon or Netflix.
  • Reducing administrative and managerial processes by 40 per cent, thus freeing up money for frontline services.

The manifesto argues that the need for greater efficiency in public services is made even more acute by an aging UK population that may consume half of government revenues by 2061.

Mark acknowledges that, as with all ‘legacy’ organisations, modernising government at the scale envisaged in the manifesto will run up against entrenched interests, and inertia. So he advocates starting small with a “pioneer” group of public service bodies eager for efficient reform, rather than a “grand plan” imposed from above.

And, summoning the spirit of Beveridge, he calls for a cross-party consensus and clarity of purpose not seen since the end of World War II.

“We have a rare chance right now – given the state of technology and unease over the current state of public services – to really transform the way government works in order to shift resources to frontline services from massively duplicated back-office functions,” says Mark.

“In calling for ambitious change on the scale of Beveridge, one always runs the risk of being dismissed as ‘politically naïve’ or ‘unrealistic’ – as I’m sure Beveridge may have been in his time. But the basic common sense of his plan to boost efficiency won over the public and political class alike. We know this won’t be easy, but we think the Manifesto for Better Public Services has similar potential in these challenging times.”