At IP EXPO this week we heard Liam Maxwell, the UK Government’s CTO, discuss the way in which government digital services have been transformed. It’s a pattern which is being studied carefully by local and national governments around the world because it offers potential for huge improvements for users alongside big cost savings.

“Revolution not evolution”

Government departments had all grown their own digital services, all independently, and all slightly different. There were lots of different brands, and multiple ways of approaching the same challenge. The government digital service found 390 different websites across central government alone. The first challenge, therefore, was to identify the common elements and create a platform to deliver those. They included publishing, which almost every department did, and verifying identity, which was again pretty common. The technology to do this was easy, but writing the site in such a way that it delivered what every department required was more of a challenge. The way round this has been to focus on making the experience better for users. is the first site, basically the ‘home’ for all central government departments, where all government documents are published. It has been designed around the needs of the user, so that they can easily find the information that they need, and funded from savings generated by closing old websites. There is also a ‘verify’ site, which verifies your identity to any government department that needs to know. From your car tax disc to your tax return, via using your driving licence as a form of identity, the verify site is the basic go-to resource.

But the digital government team isn’t content simply to design the site around what they think users need. They’re also looking at performance, including when the different parts of the site are being used. This means that any maintenance is done at quiet times, and they can see what information people want, and how best to provide it. A transformation site shows progress, and what’s in the pipeline, underpinned by a commitment to transparency.

A better relationship with technology

In 2009, the British government spent £16bn on technology, which is 1% of the whole British economy. This is massive, considering that government actually is not very big in compute terms. The government needed a new and better relationship with technology. The digital government team set about changing the way government managed technology. The first step was to make clear that there would be no contracts over £100m, and no extensions of contracts. The second step was to broaden the supply chain.

In 2010, the supply chain consisted of just a few large companies, mostly London-based. This was because the procurement system was so complex that only large companies could afford to bid for contracts. By simplifying the procurement system, the supply chain has been broadened right across the country, with many more small and medium sized companies involved. Savings are huge: £312m in 2011–12, £500m in 2012–13, and more than £1bn in 2013–14, although this also comes from retiring old systems and services that are no longer necessary now that  a common platform has been created.

The Minister in charge of digital government is militant about using open standards to allow interoperability across government. This facilitates resource-sharing, and finding the right software for the job. There are now common hosting services, common collaboration services, and more, which are gradually filtering into departments. The digital government team has not taken a prescriptive approach, but instead has provided consultancy to departments to help them get their services up and running.

A three-pronged approach

By anyone’s standards, this is a massive change in digital government. It’s been possible by focusing on three key areas. First, no more big IT. There is no space in government for massive outsourcing programmes any more. Second, by providing better tools for government. Delivery through browsers keeps the costs of sharing lower. Finally, by creating government as a platform, it is possible to quietly but efficiently deliver common services and allow government departments to focus on their mission-critical services.

It’s cheaper, yes, but it’s also better for both staff and users, and that’s the secret. Martha Lane Fox’s ‘revolution not evolution’ quote is well known in government circles. It certainly sounds like the government’s digital service has taken that instruction to heart. The new way of working is totally different, and what’s key is the creation of ‘government as a platform’.

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