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'Automating administration could save billions'

12/04/16

Former Cabinet Office adviser Mark Thompson says there is a need to remove 'brokers' between demand and supply from many public services

Government could make big savings for public services by taking out a layer of administrative functions that could be automated, an academic and former Cabinet Office adviser has claimed.

Mark_ThompsonMark Thompson (pictured), lecturer at the Judge Business School in Cambridge, originally made the case on the Guardian Public Leaders Network and told UKAuthority that the move could potentially provide billions of pounds for frontline services.

He said that most organisations are still wedded to a model developed more than 20 years ago, which relies on the use of specialised systems and often involves a large private sector outsourcer taking charge of the adminstration.

This has left a layer of middle and senior managers, both in-house and outsourced, as brokers between the supply and demand sides of public services. He distinguished these from the public servants who actually deliver services. But the development of internet technologies are making this increasingly difficult to justify.

“As technology lowers the cost of inputs you are faced with a choice,” he said. “You can either assemble the components using standards, cheap, configurable capabilities, or use existing structures, which are way more expensive and inefficient.”

Shared plumbing

He said the “shared plumbing” of the internet makes it possible to get into a wide range of processes – including identity checking, accountancy, payments, registration and workflow – without the established administration processes. If a new modular model is widely adopted it would make it possible to remove large swathes of the administration and provide massive savings.

In the case of local government, many councils maintain their own ways of running standard functions, often supported by private sector suppliers. Thompson highlighted the area of revenues and benefits, saying it is often sold to authorities as different versions of essentially the same process.

He also cited the example of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency's online tax renewal service as an example of how the administrative layer could be largely removed.

Thompson acknowledged, however, that some functions require a degree of human discretion, and that it would be open to debate about how far the automation process could go.

“It might be necessary to maintain that middle part where some discretion is required, but still billions could be taken out,” he said. “We've failed to take the rounded view of the business model. You don't get rid of them altogether, but there is so far to go.”

Another advantage of the change, he claimed, would be a better alignment between the people needing public services and those directly responsible for their delivery.

Localised decisions

“More modular and configurable technology and processes are now enabling citizens and public servants to take localised decisions themselves,” he said. “It's all about putting citizens and public servants together.”

He said that many local government services are still embedded in a business logic that involves the role of large private sector organisations, but that a growing number of officials and members are now seeing them as not adding any value but taking rent.

“What I would do is hire five or six top analysts for each organisation to rebuild the core applications. As you do that you can publish on GOV.UK, have platform as a service and it becomes is own hub that could save millions,” he said.

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