Monday, February 16, 2004

Change is "critical"

Some fascinating stuff in today's FT ... Much of [goverment] "has developed for good individual reasons" ... But "over time it has become costly, frustrating and dysfunctional". Delivery is fragmented, effort is duplicated, central government monitoring is heavy handed, and there is "a growing burden of bureaucracy on the frontline". Meanwhile the government is "frustrated at the pace of change". This, he says, "is having a negative effect on delivery of the government's key priorities". Sir Peter Gershon's analysis of the billions of pounds that the government can save on the public services is - officially at least - an "interim" one. It carries the bureaucratically cautious caveat that "the evidence base is still subject to change". But the work that he presented to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown at a Downing Street seminar in December amounts to much more than a few rough calculations on the back of a cigarette packet. In its scope and its grasp of detail, his assessment carries an authority that will be almost impossible to dismiss. On the e-government related front: Online transactions with government should be made compulsory for the "e-capable". This would affect business, intermediaries such as accountants, young people, students and higher rate taxpayers, and would cover itax-returns, benefit and student claims. For those who are not "e-capable", more work could be switched to call and contact centres and the revamped Jobcentre Plus offices. Voice-activated call-centres would handle routine account queries. Insurance companies could be used to collect vehicle-excise duty and there should be an increase in "self-service" - citizens using direct debit, online payment and credit cards to pay government. E-government has received an £8bn investment. But many of those consulted "believe the benefits from e-government have not been realised". There is a central government gateway, but individual departments and councils have their own "e" initiatives, with little joined up development or data sharing. Applicants are still asked the same questions for tax credits, income support, housing and council tax benefit, legal aid and court assessments of means. Despite the scale of e- investment there have been no commensurate savings. The government spends huge sums on an "external interface that is expensive and unable to meet customer expectations". And some terrific stats: 100m payable orders will still be issued by government in 2005 at a cost of £150m. Some 1.2bn forms are processed each year, 95 per cent of them received by post. The government posts 2.3bn documents at a cost of £1bn annually. Fifty-five per cent of the money people pay government comes by cheque, with only 30 per cent by direct debit. In addition, central government still has 1,800 local offices while local government has 3,000 to 4,000. Up to 60 per cent of inquiries to the more modern technology of call centres are simple account status queries that could be fully automated. Doubtless will be followed up in all the newspapers tomorrow.

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