The government could save as much as £70 billion by 2020 if it adopted plans to eliminate paper and digitise its activities, work smarter with fewer staff in Whitehall, shop around for the best procurement deals, and accelerate the use of data and analytics.

A Policy Exchange report, Smaller, Better, Faster, Stronger, shows how the government is wasting billions of pounds by relying on paper based public services. The Crown Prosecution Service prints one million sheets of paper every day while two articulated trucks loaded with letters and paper work pull into the Driving and Vehicle Licensing Authority (DVLA) every day. In order to complete a passport application form online, the Passport Office will print the form out and post it back for the individual to sign and send back.

The paper argues that in the near future, everything the government does should be online, unless a face-to-face interaction is essential.  The UK is already nation of internet users with nearly 6 in 10 people accessing the internet via a smartphone. People expect even simple government services like tax returns or driving licences to be online. Fully transforming government with digital technologies could help close the gap between productivity in the public and private sectors.

The report also calls for stronger digital and data skills in Whitehall, making the point that senior officials will make or break this agenda by the interest they take in digital and their willingness to keep up with the times.

A survey of public sector staff carried out for the report found:

  • Only half (51%) agree that their organisation’s board or leadership understands what tools and technology people need to do their jobs well.
  • Over a third (37%) think that the technology available in their workplace is worse or much worse than the technology they have access to at home.
  • Four in ten (39%) agree that fewer restrictions on using the web at work would increase their productivity.

The report, written by Chris Yiu, a former Treasury official, praises the Coalition for making real efforts to improve the digital delivery of public services, pointing to the fact that GOV.UK, the new single website for government, was not only launched on time and on budget, but also went on to win the coveted 2013 Design of the Year award. Yet it urges the government to go further by implementing a number of recommendations including:

  • Requiring government to issue and accept electronic proofs, so that people can do things digitally even when they are asked to provide proof of identity, address, qualifications, P45.
  • Making electronic purchasing based on open standards the default for government departments
  • Incorporating digital skills, data skills and scientific literacy more explicitly into the Civil Service competency framework, backed up with high quality training and development.
  • Increasing interchange so that more senior staff have recent external experience, particularly in organisations that are at the cutting edge of digital developments.
  • Creating a ‘LinkedIn for government’ to make it easier to find out who does what, and encourage more open policymaking and collaboration.
  • Allowing more central government teams to spin out in partnership with high-tech start-ups and other partners, to access fresh thinking and boost innovation.

Chris Yiu, author of the report, “The public sector has historically been slower and less effective when it comes to taking advantage of technology, data and the internet. The web is already inseparable from most people’s day-to-day lives, and this will only increase in the years ahead. Switching to digital for everything the government does would generate billions of pounds worth of savings that could be used to cut the deficit or improve public services.

“Government is changing, but the world around it is changing faster. With the internet all around us, it’s reasonable to expect government to embrace digital. Our public leaders need to rise to the challenge, or risk a chasm between new and old tearing the whole system apart.”

Rohan Silva, a former senior policy advisor to Prime Minister David Cameron, ” Almost every inch of the journey towards a modern and transformative agenda for public sector IT was a huge struggle against inertia and bureaucratic opposition, which makes achievements like GOV.UK, the wonderful single portal for government, so spectacular. The fact that the UK is now the world leader in open data, from a standing start in 2010, is also incredible to behold.

“However, the march of technology is relentless, and having fought so hard to overcome the old public sector IT orthodoxies, we must not ourselves become deaf to the new heresies that ought, in time, to supplant our current thinking. That is why Policy Exchange’s work in this area is so vitally important – it will help ensure that this Government, and future Governments, are exposed to new provocations and ideas, and continually pushed to make public sector IT even more efficient, even more effective, and even more transformative for citizens.”