Comment Blog 24 July, 2017

Public service reform in action

One side effect of the surprise General Election is that Reform’s events came thick and fast before the summer break. Last Monday Jon Thompson, Permanent Secretary of HMRC, led a seminar on his agency’s transformation strategy. Last Wednesday Brandon Lewis MP, Minister for Immigration, debated our recent paper on the opportunities to create frictionless trade, and much easier movement of people, across the UK border. In both cases the ideas centred on the transformative role that technology can play. These kind of events are exactly what we should be doing, looking at the most interesting examples of reform thinking that also have lessons for the rest of the public sector.

What follows respects the Chatham House Rule.

HMRC is engaged in a remarkable transformation project which is already seeing citizens interacting with the agency in new ways, including online. It is responding to the demands of modern consumers for immediate (and secure) service. It talks to private sector organisations such as banks and insurance companies.

The border authorities are little different. The tolerance of passengers for queues at the border is falling by the year. The Border Force maximum limits of a 25 minute wait for UK citizens, and 45 minutes for non-EU, seem out of date. The border is already taking advantage of new technology of which e-gates are an obvious example.

Both are in the process of revolutionising the productivity of their own staff. The development of artificial intelligence means that human staff need not be responsible for the high volume, administrative work of public services. Instead they will focus on the higher value, creative parts of service delivery.

Both look at the question of investment into the improvement of services as a business case. HMRC is spending £800 million in order to recover a target £7.2 billion in tax revenue.

There are various implications here. The first is public sector pay. Parts of the public sector are about to transform the productivity of their staff, as transactional work is handled by robots and other machines. This provides a sustainable basis for improvements in public sector pay.

The second is that the UK Government is revolutionising some of the most basic operations of the state, using cutting edge technology, in a way of which many private sector organisations would be proud. I would have thought Ministers would want to talk about it more often.

The third is that all these operations are a public-private endeavour, with government and companies working easily together. These should give all politicians pause for thought because every major Party finds it strangely hard to speak about the reality of day-to-day private sector involvement. The consumer benefits that the technology revolution in public services will bring – more reliable service, lower costs, more accessible services to name but three – would come to an immediate halt if the private sector was excluded.

At the last PMQs of the season, the debate again came down to “spend more” versus “don’t jeopardise the deficit”. The missing argument is, “increase the productivity of what we have”. Even last week, these are two examples of how the UK public sector is already doing just that.