When was the last time you stepped inside a branch of your bank? For millions of people in the UK the answer would probably be “months ago” or perhaps “last year”. That’s because they do all their banking online, along with a host of other everyday tasks such as ordering the weekly shopping, checking a train timetable, paying their gas bill and filing a tax return. Britain has gone digital in a big way, and many people now automatically turn to online services as their first port of call.
The Government wants to tap into this mindset with its new strategy for bringing services online, which it’s calling “Digital by default”. It aims to make Government services more accessible, while also encouraging users to view the Government’s online environment as a platform for wider public debate and collaboration. This approach – Government-as-a-Platform (GaaP) – opens up a new world of companies offering services based on government data and citizens actively participating in government decision-making.
A major milestone in achieving this vision of government in the digital age was the recent publication of the Government Digital Strategy (GDS). Essentially, the GDS is intended to play a critical role in defining how the government’s IT systems will evolve to allow UK citizens online access to the most crucial government services, such as claiming benefits, applying for a driving licence, and submitting tax forms.
Digitization of service delivery has been one of the most rapid and compelling trends of the past two decades, and has spurred not just a technical revolution, but also a cultural shift in what people expect now in service delivery speed, accuracy, and transparency. Whereas people used to fill in paper forms, which were then processed by computers, they are now much more likely to input information directly into an online system through Internet browsers, and the growing plethora of mobile devices. The can then check the status of any request, communicate with the service provider, and chat with other service users all with the click of a few buttons.
Although the vast majority (82%) of the UK population is online most people rarely use online government services, and it is this trend that the Government wants to change. Not only will the strategy save people time, the Government argues, but the digital process will save money. A 2012 SOCITM study across 120 local councils estimated that the cost of contact for face-to-face transactions averages £8.62, for phone £2.83, but for web only 15 pence. It estimates that moving services from offline to digital channels will save between £1.7 and £1.8 billion a year.
As it stands, the GDS represents the first step on a more fundamental journey. This new era of government service delivery – sometimes referred to as ‘Government 2.0’ – is a complete reimagining of how government interacts with its citizens, and enables citizens to interact with each other.
The aim of Government 2.0 is to use collaborative web 2.0 technologies, such as social networking and virtual communities, to bring about a widespread change in the way people solve collective problems at all levels amd hence open up government much more widely. A vision needs to be painted that helps all stakeholders – government procurement agencies, technology providers, academics, and citizens alike – realise the enormity of the change taking place, to gain an understanding of the possibilities and challenges this brings.
In practical terms, what does this vision for government service delivery really mean? Let me highlight three emerging themes that dramatically change economic models for government, and offer major opportunities for entrepreneurs:
· Open government data: Open access to government data is seen as the fuel for innovation. Allowing businesses and individuals to make use of national datasets such as healthcare and energy usage statistics to local trend data in towns and cities, such as bus schedules and crime locations/frequencies.
· New government-focused technology infrastructure: A new set of companies providing innovative services for government will emerge. The Government will be looking for new service providers to create the infrastructure needed to offer innovative, web 2.0-style services, based on open software standards. It’s likely some of these service providers will be new government-focused enterprise companies with significantly different business models.
· Easier interaction with government agencies: Bringing existing services online is an easy place to start, but it is only a first step. Existing services may need to be radically altered, and completely new services now become possible (in fact, essential) to meet changing citizen expectations. We’ll see many new pressures as we understand the services citizens want from their government in the digital age.
These themes are clear motivation for a significant change in how government delivers services, and a revolution in the business opportunities that are emerging as a result. Their potential impact on both society and the economy cannot be overstated. The digital technology revolution has pushed us to the edge of a fundamental reform of government service delivery. Interesting times lie ahead.
This article appeared in the Winter 2013 edition of Forever Surrey magazine.