The GDS procurement notice for assisted digital services points to a desire to fill a hole in the Spending Review plans
Last week’s indication by the Government Digital Service (GDS) that is preparing two contracts to support digital inclusion reflects an important, if unspoken, element of the previous week’s Spending Review.
Chancellor George Osborne placed a big emphasis on the role of technology in facilitating the massive savings – on alternative scenarios of 25% and 40% – that he expects Whitehall departments to achieve by 2019-20.
This will only be achievable if there is a big increase in the availability and use of online self-service channels. It is a familiar part of the debate about public services, but for many organisations it is still a potential rather than the norm.
But those channels are never going to be open for some – many of the elderly, people with learning disabilities, those who have never acquired basic digital skills – and these are exactly the people most likely to be in need of public services. Leaving them in the cold would be unacceptable politically and morally, but it implies that most services would still require investment in the more traditional offline delivery. Significant spending on telephone and face-to-face contact would continue.
This is where the GDS procurement, signalled by a prior information notice in the Official Journal of the EU, takes on a relevance above helping a few more people to deal with government online.
It is notable that it covers not only training services with the ‘digital inclusion’ tag, but ‘assisted digital services’ to help people deal with the public sector online. In other words, helping those who struggle with any kind of computer to get the services to which they are entitled.
This points to retaining an element of face-to-face contact, but on a much smaller scale and in a way that supports a more extensive shift towards online transactions.
It will be interesting to see how heavily this is flagged up by the Cabinet Office once the procurement framework is in place. It would make sense to promote the contracts as a means to supporting people with no digital skills while delivering an element of the savings that the government expects.
The fact that the notice was published soon after the Spending Review suggests there is some joined up thinking that acknowledges the frontline implications of the demand for savings. It will not allay all the anxieties provoked by the Spending Review, but it will provide a potential solution for one of the anticipated headaches.