Test 16 February, 2017

Reinventing public services for citizens' use (III)

This article was first published in Reform’s 2017 Annual Conference brochure. To read more articles, click here.

What does a modern, digital state look like? On the surface, pretty similar to the one we live in now. Underneath, the consequences are profound – the greatest challenge is knowing where to start.

A key principle – adopted already to some extent – must be to take the points of greatest friction and address them as quickly as possible. So, for instance, just after the birth of a new baby, few parents are filled with joy at the necessity of a visit to the Register Office. In New Zealand, this can to some extent be done online. In the UK, a baby might be assigned an NHS number not at the moment of birth but while still in the womb; registering the birth itself, and attaching a name to that record, might soon be simply a box ticked on a form, seamlessly. Yet what sounds so simple (and admittedly emotionless) requires a revolution of IT both in the NHS and in local government.

The staggering complexity of those two tasks is outweighed only by the huge value – financial and social – of getting it right.

That one example, however, highlights several points: computer systems in organisations such as the NHS are now infrastructure – they are national issues that should be managed from the centre. That means national specifications for contracts or services, and competing products, with total interoperability mandated, that local services can use. The Government Digital Service might, for instance, choose to blaze a trail by building best-in-class prototypes, and maybe even spin them off into companies that can compete in the open market. That way, every GP surgery could have the off-the-shelf appointments system that also shows whether neighbouring surgeries have better availability.

Likewise, where for instance a birth is registered locally, the software might want a council’s crest on every webpage, but underneath the skin the savings offered by not building a single thing multiple times is an enormous prospect.

Those basics, however, are not the end of innovative public services: if every council used compatible services for, say, voter registration, many would question the size of the building blocks of local government itself.

Where, some ask, does this end? The answer might be with fewer councils, but it should be with each citizen being able to see what data the state and third parties holds about them, and able to choose to share, say, a medical record with a benefits office to prove entitlement to an allowance. Facebook could plug in too.

And it might also end with citizens able to see or even to some extent control where their individual taxes can take them or our country. That innovation might not only revolutionise public services but it might do something impossible any other way: restore a little faith in democracy itself.