The best service is the one which disappears.
Alan Mather has written an interesting piece about whether government is still doing too much of its own IT. His interest is not in the possibility of further outsourcing, but in letting third parties incorporate services which also provide value to government. He is on to something important, and I think it may be even more important than he suggests.
His first example is the tax disc. As he rightly points out, the issue here is not how good the existing online service is, but why that service needs to exist at all. I have long been of the view that the most obviously efficient way of ensuring that vehicles were insured, safe, and taxed would be to require insurance companies to add the amount due to the premiums they are collecting anyway. But what makes that interesting is the glue that hold the tax disc service together in the first place: it is an unlikely, and I suspect largely unforeseen, consequence of a European Directive on motor insurance, and the database insurers set up to comply with it.
So in a sense, the issue is less that the government allowed other people to develop IT for it as that advantage can be taken of other people developing capabilities for reasons of their own. This is not a new phenomenon: companies have invoicing systems or cash registers, which as a by-product can collect and account for VAT. They have payrolls which as a by-product collect and account for income tax and national insurance contributions. In both cases this removes any requirement for those ultimately paying the taxes to transact directly with government at the point of payment, and as a result renders the process much less visible than it would otherwise be.
That may have an interesting political consequence. Paying tax is a much more overt and much more immediately painful process for people who are self-employed or run small businesses than it is for employed earners, and that may have some affect on perceptions of the value of tax and of government more generally – a useful reminder that service delivery is not a neutral and politically agnostic activity.
The idea of the vanishing service sites not need to stop there. I was involved with the online change of address notification pilots ten years ago, where we took a very deliberate decision not to create the service ourselves. Nobody moves house for government purposes in isolation, and there is clear advantage in providing a service which can cover a full range of needs in one place. So the government service was still there, but hidden behind other providers whose primary focus was elsewhere.
So the interesting question becomes whether there are other things government can get done more effectively by disappearing. That is not, in this context about outsourcing or privatisation. There is a place for that argument, but this is not it. The answer must surely be that more things could be done more smartly by aligning them with other activities done for other purposes. A list of specific services beyond those already identified might not be very long, but the real power of this idea may lie at a different level again. The change of address example points the way. Rather than thinking of services which can be piggy-backed on other activities, perhaps we should think of the information driving those services as the real opportunity. The information I have about myself is not information I hold, by and large, because government wants it, it is information which describes and shapes my life. Managing that information, rather than managing fragments of it scattered across government databases could be the real opportunity here – which by yet another route gets us back to volunteered personal information. And that’s interesting not just in its own right, but because it’s not where I had expected to end up when I started writing this post.
It’s also surely crucial to think not in terms of services, but of the outcomes we’re trying to achieve through those services. Hospitals, prisons and the diplomatic service provide services. The aims of those services are keeping people healthy and alive, preventing offenders from reoffending and…I’d need an essay to discuss the aims for which the diplomatic service exists. My point is that the service will have grown up for a variety of historical reasons and there may be diferent ways of achieving the desired end which work better and could even be cheaper too (by the way, I’m not advocating abolishing hospitals). However, to identify and test really new ways takes time – which is why the current round of cuts so often represents old-fashioned cuts and not thinking which is practical and radical, and is often leading to the weakening or disappearance of voluntary organisations which could drive new thinking and doing.
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