One aspect of government we thoroughly dislike here in the UK is useless and inefficient bureaucracy.
The mere thought of it leads people to assume that the government is getting it wrong and, in some instances, our prejudices are not totally unjustified. For example, you would be surprised to discover the large number of arrest warrants for people who turn out to be already in prison or cannot be traced. If situations like this arise in serious matters, you can imagine what such lack of coordination can lead to in more mundane dealings with the government.
Joining up – collaboration between departments and agencies is therefore a reoccurring team in the Civil Service World coverage. It is hard to find anyone in Whitehall who doesn’t agree with the goal of joined-up government; but it is also hard to find agreement on the practical steps needed to realize that end. In an effort to stimulate debate on more collaboration, the Civil Service World organized a lively roundtable discussion on the topic. The group met just days after senior Labour ministers published the high-profile Smarter Government document on the next stages of public service reform, which places important emphasis on computer technology. Among its ambitious promises is the national roll-out of ‘Tell Us Once’ and other plans to move even more public services – including student loans and Jobseeker’s Allowance – to mainly online provision.
It is well known that the British public is amongst the most the most apprehensive in Europe of Government insight into our private lives. Therefore the question of improving public service for us all, while safeguarding privacy, occupied a large part of the discussion. My colleague Dave Coplin suggested that the key to this is creating a system whereby citizens own their data in a transparent and open system. France, we have learnt, has already developed a system which could be copied in the UK. There, data is stored in a secure ‘personal strongbox’. Then again, as we do not live in an ideal society of law-abiding citizens, the right balance must be struck between our privacy and our safety and protection. In this sense, police access might, in some instances, be necessary.
Another issue discussed at the roundtable was the financial benefits of intra-governmental collaboration. The severity of the economic situation has strengthened the case for a system which avoids duplication of work, services and IT systems in the public service and allows our taxes to be spent where they are most needed.
So what is the way forward? The stated aim of government, as recently clarified by the Prime Minister, is to move not just some, but the “great majority” of transactional services to the Web. Added to this, the civil service has the broad and longstanding ambition of using IT to join up better – an imperative many feel has been given further impetus by the recession. Technical aspects are only one part of the story: the key is making sure the datasets held by departments are intelligible to different systems, allowing organisations to interact. Indeed, much of the discussion revolved around overcoming the challenges of interoperability and collaboration, and it is at this level where Microsoft feels it can support government efforts to achieve its objectives in the field of e-government and provide a more efficient, accessible and cost-effective public service for its citizens.