Digital technology will be central to delivering the chancellor’s spending cuts while alleviating the effect on voters
There is no divorcing digital technology from the politics of chancellor George Osborne’s demands in the Spending Review.
Kicking off the review period with the publication of the background document, he makes clear in its foreword that he is looking to all public services to make themselves more efficient by stepping up the use of technology.
Their ability to do this is going to play a big part in how voters regard Osborne and his Conservative colleagues in five years’ time. The scale of the spending cuts he demands is massive: he has told Whitehall departments to model their plans on two scenarios, for 25% and 40% savings in real terms by 2019-20. Frontline services are not going to escape cuts on those scales; but if the digital revolution can deliver it will provide the efficiencies to save a few more services from the knife, and convince some of the public that they should feel grateful rather than angry.
There are likely to be four main elements to the digital campaign, each of which brings a degree of political uncertainty.
One is in forcing organisations to make the business case for technology investments when they are making sharp cuts on the frontline. It makes sense to chief executives and finance officers who can see the long term benefits, but not always to the voters, especially when there has been a lot of cynicism about the shortcomings of government IT.
It will take some careful management, and an effort to ensure these are not perceived as big IT projects, to dampen any complaints from press and politicians about the spending.
Second is that much of the effort is going to focus on developing more online self-service channels. There has already been significant, with a consensus that it can be an effective cutter of administration costs, but there is still a long way to go until it becomes the norm.
It is likely most public-facing service providers are preparing for the challenge, but it leaves open the issue of what happens to the core of older and vulnerable people who are never going to be digitally savvy. For all the efforts to spread digital inclusion they are going to comprise a significant proportion of the population beyond 2020, and they are the most likely to have an urgent need of public services. Any evidence that they are being deprived because of a failure to use a computer will lead to negative press and complaints that the government is happy to leave some people behind.
Thirdly, the campaign for government as a platform has to be extended beyond Whitehall departments and agencies. There is already a debate about how local government and other service providers can share more assets and infrastructure, but it is moving slowly and there will have to be a lot more urgency, and a commitment by organisations to go along with the crowd.
It is going to need a push from the centre, and at least one coordinating body to make it work. But local authorities and healthcare trusts are traditionally keen to preserve their autonomy, and the Spending Review also makes a commitment to more devolution to cities and regions. It raises questions about how ready organisations will be to share, and if so whether it should work nationally, regionally or in non-geographic clusters.
Finally, there has to be an emphasis on increasing the use of mobile technology and flexible working to achieve of the Spending Reviews aims – shedding a sizeable chunk of the public sector property estate. It has been an issue in the public sector for several years and there have been efforts to get more people working outside the office; but it still runs into the cultural obstacles that are often difficult to dislodge.
None of these problems are insurmountable, but there is an element of politics in all of them and they are going to require some deft management, and probably a few confrontations, if they are to be achieved.
Osborne will be hoping that his allies are up to the challenge.
Pictured: George Osborne by Paul Clarke © | paulclarke.com