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Solving your data issues

A large swath of the public sector has embarked on a major investment programme to make the UK digital by default from 2020. The aim of the plan is to allow greater public access, cut the cost of government, improve public sector efficiency and address the growing issue of paper storage, transportation and security. PHS’ Ruth Williams explains what you need to know

The current scale of public sector paper management is massive and continues to expand. Documents held by the state need storage, quick retrieval when required, and subsequent transportation. The scale of the public sector digitisation programme should not be underestimated. In 2014 the Criminal Justice System alone produced around 160 million sheets of paper, which if stacked together would be roughly higher than Mount Everest and that is just for a single year. 

The digitisation of the NHS is equally challenging due to the complex nature and multitude of organisations making up the service. Despite technological advances such as MRI scans and stem-cell research, patient paper records in many hospitals still remain pinned to a clipboard at the foot of their bed.

Following the April 2012 Budget Statement, the Government commissioned a Digital Efficiency Report which was subsequently published on the 6 November 2012. The aim of this report was to examine ways of cutting the overall cost of government whilst providing more responsive frontline services. The report, which was subsequently updated in 2013, concluded that it was possible to save up to £1.8 billion per year by going digital by default.

The report further suggests that government transactions online can be 20 times cheaper than by phone, 30 times cheaper than by post and as much as 50 times cheaper than face-to-face. Not surprisingly this report has had a major impact on all 24 UK ministerial government departments who are all now at varying stages of digitisation, which should be concluded by no later than 2020.

The Cabinet Office has subsequently taken the lead and has been the biggest driving force to reduce the overall cost of government and improving services. According to the then Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude it wasn’t just about saving money it was also about allowing the public to access services quickly and conveniently, at times and in ways that suit them.

To address this issue the Government is building its own common set of platforms, core digital plumbing which can be used by services across government. As an example, Hancock quotes the fact that almost every part of government maintains a separate system for making and taking payments, often from the same people. By introducing a common payments platform it will integrate services and save money.

Digital by default is now the Government’s mantra and the use of new technology is also allowing, slightly more controversially, businesses to access and exploit public data in a way that increases accountability, drives choice and spurs innovation.

Changes within Government are being followed by the NHS whose plans to digitise the 470 organisations that make up the body have slipped behind schedule and has been extended until 2020 for completion. Contrary to the Government’s more rigid programme, the rollout programme varies from department to department. Some organisations such as the Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) still have until April 2016 to submit their ‘eradication of paper’ plans. The scale of the mountain facing the NHS was made clear by Tim Kelsey, NHS England’s national director for Patients and Information, who claims each NHS trust spends between £500,000 and £1 million per year on paper, including the cost of storing it and moving it around the NHS network.

There are also a number of other driving forces including the impact of growing data volumes and ever-increasing security risks, greater public scrutiny such as increased Freedom of Information requests, increased compliance and the reduction
in the time limit for the release of public records from 30 to 20 years.

In addition and not to be under estimated there is also an increasingly digital UK population who would like to access services 24/7.

The Government has established a department within the Cabinet Office called Government Digital Services. The aim of Government Digital Services is to make digital services and information simpler, clearer and faster. Government Digital Services is advising all government departments and is working with the Cabinet Office to ensure that there is a common digital platform.

Its priorities include the full digitisation of government services during the course of the current Parliament and then a move towards linking different local and central departments together. This includes transforming 25 of the main government services by 2015, publishing clear data on how many people are using digital services and how they are performing including dashboards for all major government departments. This also includes development of a new, simple, secure way to allow people to sign in to digital services. Other responsibilities include helping departments leave unsuitable IT contracts, spend less and get better value for money.

Government Digital Services has not been without controversy and in August 2015 four senior figures, including its director, resigned. In mitigation, the department has been spectacularly successful in moving the Government onto a digital agenda that is now delivering, which was no easy feat.

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