IT modernisation helps UK budget

The current UK government was faced with the 'scissors of doom' - rising expenditure and falling revenues - and identified IT as a key part of spending, Denise McDonagh, CTO of the UK Home Office (the department responsible for national security, border security, and crime, justice and policing) told the Technology in Government Summit.

Part of the problem was the lock-in to large suppliers, which made it hard to respond to changes in government policy. In some cases, discontinuing the use of a service would cost more than keeping it on.

In 2010, there were a very small number of IT suppliers to the government, all concentrated in southeast England. Following the introduction of the G-Cloud framework that made it easier for public sector bodies to use cloud services, the number of suppliers mushroomed. They are now drawn from around the country, and more than 60% are SMEs thanks to changes in procurement terms and conditions that previously prevented smaller and especially new businesses from seeking government contracts. Some of these changes were extremely simple, such as allowing suppliers to obtain mandatory insurance once they have won government business rather than requiring cover before they will even be considered as a supplier.

On the demand side, “we wanted people to start buying ‘commodity’,” said Ms McDonagh. For example, the government was buying many variations on what was really a standard desktop at a range of different prices. “We are not unique, we are not all different,” she said.

One downside of this approach is that buying commodity IT means you become the systems integrator and that can be “difficult,” Ms McDonagh admitted. Some areas of government struggled with this, as they were used to leaving design decisions to the supplier rather than taking them in-house.

Improving government transactions was identified as a major opportunity to save money and simultaneously improve services. While there are hundreds of different types of government transactions, just 28 account for the bulk of the 1.43 billion transactions occurring annually.

So work began on building new systems to allow the top 25 transactions to be performed at a fraction of the previous cost. Importantly, a decision was made that these systems would be complete replacements. Once a new system went live - which was contingent on the relevant minister or ministers personally testing the transaction  - the legacy system would be switched off, which Ms McDonagh said was an unusual procedure for the UK Government.

Among the reworked transactions were voter registration , booking prison visits , and joining the Registered Traveller Service that speeds entry for frequent visitors from Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Canada and Japan (currently in pilot).

These and other related measures did result in substantial savings. Government IT expenditure was £16 billion in 2009, and the savings were £312 million in 2011-12, £500 million in 2012-13, and at least £1 billion in 2013-14, Ms McDonagh said.

These new systems include publicly accessible dashboards showing information such as the cost per transaction and user satisfaction. For example, tax disc renewals (the equivalent of vehicle registration fees) are running at 94% user satisfaction and cost £1.03 per transaction. Approximately 56% of renewals are done online or via the automated phone system, with almost all of the remainder occurring at post offices.

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