By Max Clarke
With the Government increasingly looking to trim public sector expenditure, the CBI today called on the Government to harness the potential of information technology to transform public service efficiency.
In a new report System Reset: Transforming public services through IT, the UK’s leading business group says that making better use of technology could make accessing public services easier for the public and businesses, while saving taxpayers’ money. IT can also revolutionise frontline service delivery and should not be viewed as just a support function, as the Open Public Services White Paper recognises.
Among the examples of how IT is being used effectively in public services featured in the report are:
• The Tell Us Once Programme in the Department for Work and Pensions means that the public can speak to a single contact about bereavements and births and all relevant government departments and agencies can then access this information
• Midwives using Blackberry digital pen-and-paper technology at Portsmouth Hospitals NHS Trust, which saves 98 minutes a day on administration and £220,000 a year.
• The NHS N3 high-speed communications network run by BT which allows for the secure transmission of patient information between GPs and hospital doctors.
"This report shows how making better use of technology could really revolutionise the way our public services operate, said Emma Watkins, CBI Head of Public Services Policy.
“From giving police officers and midwives handheld devices so that they can update and access records on the move, to enabling the public to access more services online, good IT can reap huge benefits for citizens and taxpayers.
“But there are worrying signs that the public sector is starting to view it as a risky investment. In fact many technologies are available as off-the-shelf products and are already being used, but because there is no formal sharing of good practice, the benefits remain largely unknown.”
The CBI has identified ten lessons that would help harness the potential of IT:
1. Contract for outcomes and value. Don’t over-prescribe
Customers should specify the outcome, leaving the supplier to determine the best way of delivering it. Often a ‘good enough’ IT solution may be better value for money than a ‘gold-plated’ one.
2. Agree at the outset what should be measured - and measure it
Clients and suppliers need to set the baseline for assessment and should assess the total cost rather than the initial project outlay. Success needs to be observable and measurable.
3. Manage IT systems effectively in order to yield benefits
Once systems have been rolled out, they still need active management. Too often, mistakes occur when the project team is dispersed and implementation starts. It is then that the new system runs the risk of not performing against its targets.
4. Standardise systems and data models
There is too much IT variation across public services. A ‘do it once’ approach should be adopted. Common standards will also allow large contracts to be broken into modular components.
5. Give staff a leading role in the design and implementation of IT change
Technology can be under-utilised when it does not have the staff buy-in so it is important to include staff in the design and implementation.
6. Start discussions now about investing in future technologies
Providers can help the Government find solutions and have already proposed many ideas for how they can be delivered and the benefits they will bring. Government now needs to commission those which can deliver its outcomes.
7. Good service outcomes should trump compliance with prescriptive rules
The Government should review procurement processes that have become more important than finding the right solution or outcome.
8. Changes of policy should take account of the consequences for IT systems
More consideration should be given to isolating IT projects from political and organisational change, so projects aren’t disrupted if a minister changes or a department reorganised.
9. Challenge services to drive innovation and save cost
The new Cabinet Office IT ‘skunk works’ team, which is charged with improving the use of IT across public services, should define common processes, identify and spread best practice, and draw up delivery plans for sharing front- and back-office services.
10. Don’t let security paranoia hinder effective working
Justifiable concerns to protect public service information should not lead to excessive risk aversion and override the benefits from technology. For example, remote working.
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