Brits learning from the Continent? Authority, digi gov wheezes and the Autumn Statement

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Analysis Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne included several uses of technology in Wednesday’s Autumn Statement and Spending Review.

As part of a major expansion, the Government Digital Service will develop a common payment system on gov.uk, so that by 2020 citizens will have the option of paying online for every central government service.

He also confirmed that HM Revenue and Customs will set up digital tax accounts for all small businesses and individuals by 2016-17, and by the end of the decade most businesses, self-employed workers and landlords will have to update HMRC digitally at least quarterly through free apps and software.

We’ll find out more about these plans next year.

The review includes other computerisation projects, including £700m on digitising courts (which, along with selling court buildings, is meant to save £200m annually from 2019/20), nearly £1bn on the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme, and £130m on technology for border officials.

More than £250m will go on overhauling the passport and immigration system, making it possible for people to apply and pay for passport and visa applications entirely online.

But, Osborne could have gone further in a project that might have saved as much as £2bn based on the experience of another European country.

While that may not sound much in the context of the government’s £756bn budget for 2015/16, he had committed to avoiding cuts and in some cases increasing spending in health, pensions, defence and overseas aid, altogether worth a third of spending. Even for Osborne, £2bn a year is real money.

The country making such savings per person is Denmark, which a year ago introduced a compulsory Digital Post system. This is the sole channel through which citizens and businesses receive many messages from public bodies unless they can demonstrate the need to receive printed letters.

Only a small minority are doing so: following several years of development including a huge outreach campaign, in 2014, 91 per cent of adults had the NemID account required to use the system.

The Danish government expects to send more than 80 million electronic letters through Digital Post by the end of this year, as part of its aim of digitising at least 80 per cent of all relevant written communication between government and citizens.

In parallel, since 2012 a wide range of government processes from applying for a pension to booking a state-run campsite have moved from paper to digital self-service through the Borger.dk portal.

Thomas Frandzen, a special adviser to the Danish Agency for Digitisation, told (PDF) last month’s Socitm annual conference in Leicester that, from 2016, the country expects to save up to £200m a year through the work.

It has been well received, he added: “Some citizens even complain when they get letters from public authorities.”

Frandzen said that some organisations have seen a slight increase in people failing to react to messages. However, following an initial awareness campaign for the system, the Danish government is now reminding citizens to check their Digital Post accounts, to which end they can sign up for text message and email notifications.

The UK’s population is more than eleven times that of Denmark, hence the estimate that a British equivalent could save as much as £2bn. But the chances of it happening any time soon are very slim ... and here’s why.

First, the Danish government adapted an existing private sector scheme, e-boks.dk, which was already used by four million people and companies for the likes of payslips and bank statements. Next, Danes are particularly comfortable online, with 93 per cent of families having home access and more than half of 75 to 89 year-olds having logged on recently, according to Frandzen.

But while Britain lacks a single existing secure mailbox service, it’s a familiar concept given its use by banks and others, and research from Ofcom says 85 per cent of adults have internet access.

But, Denmark has two further advantages: it is a small country where a majority of citizens trust the government. A small country means a smaller state sector, which is more likely to work together for reasons of scale. Frandzen said that national, regional and local layers of Danish government have generally done online work together.

In Britain, the different parts of the state are big enough to do their own thing, and generally do so unless forced otherwise. While Westminster has pushed all its departments onto the Gov.uk web portal, virtually every council and NHS organisation runs its own independent website. The Scottish and Welsh governments don’t even use the same top-level domain, preferring gov.scot and gov.wales/.cymru respectively.

Even if the public sector could be corralled into a single system, there would be the not insignificant problem of public reaction. One can imagine the indignation of some newspapers telling their readers that they would have to check a website for the privilege of receiving letters from the government.

By the time Osborne forces individuals to use online tax services in 2020 it will have been nearly two decades since the then Inland Revenue opened online filing of tax returns in 2001. For the self-assessment tax return filing season that ended last January, 85.5 per cent of individuals used the online service.

Danes trust their government much more than Britons. A European Commission Eurobarometer survey earlier this year found that 55 per cent of Danes trust their national government and 72 per cent trust regional and local authorities, respectively the second-highest and highest figures among the 28 EU states.

By comparison, just 37 per cent of Britons trust Westminster and 52 per cent trust local authorities. (The one arm of the state that bucks this trend is the army, trusted by 89 per cent of Britons – second only in the EU to Finland – compared with 82 per cent of Danes.)

Some mistrust in government IT is likely to be down to the well-publicised failure of some – well, quite a few – projects, which would lead many to expect a British equivalent to Digital Post to crash and burn.

But some must also be down to British individuality and cussedness; at the Socitm event I found myself trying to explain to a mystified Dane why Britain doesn’t have an equivalent to the national identity register that was used as the basis for Digital Post.

Britain’s polite disdain for authority may be a core element of national character, but sometimes it has a price-tag. ®

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