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April 20, 2016updated 28 Mar 2017 4:13pm

Digitising Government

By John Oates

Government moves into digital delivery of public services tend to be one step forward, one step back. But continuing pressure on spending means more and more of our interaction with government is moving online.

UK citizens have seen these kind of moves before, branded as ‘e-Government’ – with decidedly mixed results. But the latest initiative promises to be different by changing the way public servants think about technology projects and what they can achieve.

It aims to promote thinking about government as a platform rather than just moving certain services or processes online.

This requires using open standards from early on in the design phase of any project.

It means changing the way services are delivered entirely and not just automating processes or shifting them online.

In practise this means opening up access to the various data silos within government, and even within individual departments. Alongside sharing of data the project also hopes to encourage sharing of skills and collaborative working to create more user focussed services.

The use of open standards also aims to help government projects free themselves from the big suppliers and ever-growing IT projects.

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Combined with ‘agile’ development processes it hopes to avoid the costly mistakes of the past.

Data Sharing

The big hope of digitising government is that it will release the value of publicly held big data.

The big challenge for government is in allowing the use of public data by the public, but also safeguarding very personal data like health records.

The example used by the authors of Digitising Government, a book outlining the UK government view, is transport information – real-time train and bus data. This data was once kept within the civil service but it is now used and reused by various mobile applications and other services to the benefit of citizens.

The government made the data available in machine readable form – private companies then re-purposed it for easy public use.

The next step is creating interfaces and platforms which will be reusable by different parts of government – increasing the openness of data at minimal extra cost.

The idea is that this will create a platform – like Facebook. Extra features are added to Facebook by applications which interact with it. Over time these are absorbed into the main platform. In a similar way government could take advantage of these innovations without needing to start big technology projects of their own.

This should save government money – it won’t be paying for innovations which turn out to be unpopular – while citizens still get the benefit of new services.

Open standards should even allow international cooperation – the UK government has just signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Australian government to share expertise, best practise and work together on common problems.

For UK businesses this change should mean new opportunities both from providing services and from access to better data. With a bit of luck it will also reduce the time and cost of dealing with all levels of government.

There are still issues in getting these services up and running – we’re betting there will be more delays to the Universal Credit project for instance. There are also challenges with ensuring all citizens have access to these services

But the overall move is irresistible – services are moving online because citizens prefer to interact that way and because, done right, such services should be cheaper to provide.

If you want to know more then you can buy Digitising Government written by three senior government advisers, or there is a 12 page extract available for download here.

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