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Tory think tank: Hey, civil servants! Work with startups to save £70bn

Rip up paper transactions, shove everything online by 2020

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Analysis Articulated-truck-loads of paperwork awaiting the ministrations of a rubber stamp- or pen-wielding civil servant should soon be a thing of the past, according to Tory think tank Policy Exchange.

It wants to see bureaucrats mashing up APIs with Silicon Roundabout startups instead and leaders "driv[ing] digital into the DNA of public sector organisations".

The think tank has published a report that offers a glowing assessment of the government's digital-by-default agenda – a cost-saving effort to shift public services online and away from desks and counters manned by expensive civil servants.

In a pre-election blitz tailored for the Conservative Party, Policy Exchange lays out a number of recommendations for how the next government should continue to shift "exclusively to digital channels".

The report itself mirrors many of the policies already in play at Whitehall, such as the desire to end what government wonks – if not many taxpayers – perceive as unnecessary "face-to-face interaction".

The Department for Work and Pensions' delayed and much-criticised IT project Universal Credit, for example, is aimed at axing such transactions by shifting benefit claimants over to an online system. That's despite the fact that some 7 million Brits do not use the internet.

Policy Exchange draws heavily on such plans and calls on the government to treat the public sector more like a corporation. It also said that more civil servant teams should "spin out their activities in partnership with UK technology startups and other partners".

It acknowledged that at present open data is a "fringe activity" within government, adding that it needed to move to a "total data" approach – which apparently involves "buying in big data analytics... to flush out savings" – by 2020.

What might this mean for taxpayers, then? Big savings, apparently. It said:

If we can accelerate the rate of public sector productivity growth to match that in comparable parts of the private sector, then by 2020 a digitally transformed government could be up to 8 per cent more effective than if it continued doing business as usual.

This could free up £24bn a year to be spent on a combination of public service expansion and/or deficit reduction.

It claimed that a cumulative saving of £70bn could be clawed back from the start of the next Parliament until 2020, if the 8 per cent saving on "staff costs, procurement and grants to local government" were to be gradually levered from the start of the period until its end.

The Smaller, Better, Faster, Stronger [PDF] report also tackled how the government currently issues ID documentation to Brits. It said:

At present these proofs are almost exclusively analogue: birth certificates, marriage certificates, exam and degree certificates, driving licences, P60s, P45s, car tax discs and so on. Simply moving transactions online will make a big difference to the efficiency with which an individual can interact with a particular government service, but in many cases a paper document may still be expelled at the final stage.

In the meantime, almost every aspect of our lives – not just our interactions with government – is heading online and becoming increasingly connected. Many of our interactions with third parties require us to present government-issued proofs sooner or later, and whilst these proofs remain analogue this will always cause otherwise quick and cheap online processes to come grinding to a halt.

The government is currently locked in contract talks with eight ID assurance providers to deliver a £25m-and-counting federated identity system that taxpayers can use online. PayPal and Verizon are among the tech companies from which Brits will be able to choose to provide their credentials on the web-based service.

Some critics have described such a system as a national identity database, sans the ID card.

Policy Exchange, however, thinks that building an ID framework is an important prerequisite for "efficient and secure online government services".

It goes on to say that "the future of government as a platform" offers up three "opportunities": electronic purchasing, electronic proofs (ID) and APIs for all government services.

The report also heaped praise on the Cabinet Office's Government Digital Service team, the developers behind the GOV.UK website. The site – which has won awards for looking pretty but has been regularly derided for being difficult to navigate – replaced NuLabour's Directgov in October last year. Apparently, GOV.UK is a "spectacular" success story for Whitehall.

We'd love to know if you agree. ®

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