Simon Dennis, central government director at SAS UK, reflects on plans for a paperless and digitally-enabled public sector
When it's claimed that the UK government could be wasting money that's equivalent to current spending on state pensions - and considerably more than what's spent by the Department for Education - you know that action is needed.
The Policy Exchange recently issued a report - 'Smaller, Better, Faster, Stronger - which estimated the public sector could save tax payers as much as £70 billion by 2020 if services were available online rather than being paper-based. In times of austerity, ongoing government cuts and pinched purses, that's a significant sum which could be fed back into the country to help find efficiencies and improve services.
A 'Digital Whitehall' has been on the horizon for some time now. However, despite a big push on the 'Digital by Default' initiative, championed by Francis Maude, public sector departments are still heavily reliant on paper. The Crown Prosecution Service alone prints one million sheets of paper every day, while the Passport Office still relies on lengthy paper application forms.
The data revolution
So how can the 'Digital by Default' initiative truly take off if government departments are still using paper? And what does government stand to gain by embracing the online world? The UK is already a nation of internet users; according to the same Policy Exchange report, nearly six in 10 people now access the internet via a smartphone. In the same way that you can order shopping or bank online, people increasingly expect the same type of experience for government services, such as tax returns or paying bills. While some of these tasks can now be done online, there is still some way to go before all services, as well as key internal processes within the public sector, are completely digitised.
A government report into the UK's Data Capability Strategy recently suggested the UK has the potential to lead one of the defining developments of the 21st century - the data revolution. However, in order to do so, it needs to look at more innovative and intelligent ways of collecting and sharing data. As the biggest, natural source of big data, the success or failure of government services really does depend on how it uses the wealth of citizen data it holds.
The problem with paper
Going paperless isn't just about reducing the amount of money we spend on stationery. The problem with paper is that it perpetuates the creation of information silos. Because the information captured in paper documents does not lend itself easily to sharing, activity can often be duplicated. For example, citizen 'X' might fill in the same personal information form several times after registering with a new doctor, dentist or sending off applications for a driving license. These forms sit in different offices, perhaps with different information. There's simply not a single, holistic view of the individual, as manual records are too difficult to share.
Instead of acting like a library, collecting thousands upon thousands of dusty paper archives, the public sector needs to think more like a bank or e-commerce provider, focused on delivering the right services to the right individual, across the right channel. This means rethinking the way that government communicates with the citizen. For example, if a public sector department is 100 per cent digitally-enabled internally, it doesn't make sense to send citizens paper forms to complete. Similarly, if we know that 'Tara' - aged 25 and living in London - prefers to pay council tax bills online, we should be asking her whether she wants to opt into paperless bills and encourage her to use the channel that best suits her.
Digital by design, not default
That said, there's no point pushing a digital agenda if citizens are not digitally-savvy. While six in 10 UK citizens use the internet via smartphone, that still leaves four that don't. Younger generations are considered to be digital natives, but some older ones are less inclined to want to touch a computer, much less deal with official government business online. Lots of young people are also digitally disengaged - according to OFCOM, one-fifth of UK households (5.2 million people) are not online. Half of marginalised communities are also offline. Rather than make services 'digital by default' government should focus on making them 'digital by design' - giving citizens the choice of how they want to interact with the state, whether that's through SMS, web or paper forms, or even face-to-face interactions. Government should then look to design future services based on this insight.
Skills as a digital enabler
Regardless of whether UK citizens are online or offline, the opportunity that going digital would provide the public sector cannot be ignored. A more intelligent approach to collecting, managing and sharing data internally - both within and between departments - would enable it to create a much more efficient experience for its citizens, not to mention cutting down on costs. But becoming digitally-enabled is only half the battle - the government also needs to look at technologies such as big data analytics if it wants to glean the most value out of the data sources it has to hand.
Data should be in the DNA of decision making, and the public sector should be using citizen insights to provide evidence and answers to the questions asked of it on a daily basis. Analytics can help to provide these answers, but an increasingly prevalent big data skills gap is holding both the private and public sectors back from truly taking advantage. Research from e-skills UK found the UK is facing a major increase in demand for data scientists, with a 243 per cent increase in demand for big data specialists by 2017 - yet three out of five large UK organisations admit they are already struggling to hire staff with these skills. Businesses and the government need to work together to nurture the skills needed, particularly in science, technology, engineering and maths.
To move the paperless society from a concept to reality, the public sector needs to address the need for skills, tools like analytics and the crucial role of data in improving services and creating efficiencies. The real thing that will make or break these initiatives will be the people working in the public sector. Are the civil servants leading this prepared to do what's required to make real change? Do they have the appropriate awareness of technology to make the right decisions? It should be pointed out that not everyone using and sharing findings from the available technology needs to be an expert data analyst. This is due to data visualisation and analytics-as-a-service solutions, where the expertise is effectively hired in.
Only with the right skills will the public sector be able to imagine the full potential of technology, data and the internet to transform government and open up systems to innovation. Addressing this opportunity will stand us in good stead to create a stronger, better, faster and digitally-enabled UK public sector, in line with the government's data capability strategy.