Much has been said about the government's 'Big Society' policy in recent weeks, with opinion seemingly divided about the coalition's approach to public sector reform. The government has outlined its vision to empower local communities and give power back to the UK population, but how it goes about achieving this aim during difficult economic times is up for debate. What is clear is that the Con-Lib alliance must make use of every available resource as it bids to reduce public spending and increase efficiency, without alienating the electorate. And according to the National Audit Office (NAO), ICT has a valuable role to play in the pursuit of these goals.
In a recent report, the watchdog claimed that stronger information strategies and increased government transparency will be needed if the public is to buy into the 'Big Society' plan. It claims a duty will be placed on all public sector organisations to publish data, something which could potentially place greater strains on existing government ICT infrastructure. The government will face a number of challenges, the NAO stated, including providing access to data affordably using common standards, balancing openness with security, ensuring the quality of data – in order to avoid scandal or political embarrassment at a later stage – and releasing information in a timely manner.
The NAO report expressed the view that if these aims are to be achieved, new IT management approaches may be required. It said that while databases and transactional systems are crucial to the delivery of public services, the government has historically struggled to keep costs under control. And in the current environment, particularly with the public demanding greater transparency – and budget waste reduction – this is problematic.
Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, noted that government is knowledge intensive, and effective information and sound ICT strategies go hand in hand. As such, the government has the opportunity to use technology to achieve two important aims. "We will take a strong interest in future in how government is making the most of ICT to secure efficiencies and make possible new ways of delivering public services," Mr Morse commented. "At the same time, we will be looking at the steps being taken by government to rationalise its ICT, to achieve short-term cost savings."
Responding to the report, Emma Watkins, head of public services policy at the Confederation of British Industry, said there are "many good examples" of how technology is already improving public service delivery in the UK. She cited the example of giving midwives handheld devices so they can access patient records on the move, which has increased efficiency within the NHS. As a further instance, Ms Watkins pointed to the installation emergency alarms in the homes of older people, which allow them to live independently for longer. "Making better use of information technology could boost the efficiency of our public services, while reaping big savings for taxpayers," she commented, adding that "it is right to focus on getting value for money".
Given the vast scale of government ICT projects, flexibility may not always feature at the top of the agenda when implementing such initatives. As such, it can be difficult for the public sector to keep up with private sector innovation and IT adoption, and make full use of the latest tools as they come to market. With public IT budgets hit to the tune of £95 million as part of the chancellor's austerity measures, a full infrastructure overhaul is unlikely any time soon. But the government is sure to consider the NAO's view on the role IT can play in improving public service delivery in the information age, as the public seeks to scrutinise government activity to a greater extent, and ministers seek to allay their concerns.