Friday 27 January 2012

While acknowledging that the web is a dangerous place to be, that's where Whitehall want to put all public services

There is a constant stream of scare stories in the media about hackers committing crimes on the web. National infrastructure can be disabled (Russian hackers), companies have their intellectual property stolen (the Chinese), and your bank account can be raided (Ukrainians). The stories have one message – the web is not a safe place. The government agree, and have set aside £650 million for the UK's cyber defences. At the same time, the government are planning to put all public services on the web. Are they coming or going? Do they know?

Last month Sir Gus O'Donnell retired as Cabinet Secretary, Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office and head of the home civil service, all three rolled into one.

Public Servant magazine devoted a valedictory article to him, Sir Gus on Whitehall's big challenge:
"It's a very challenging time for public services," he acknowledges. "I think what we were delivering over the past few years was, as it were, more with more – better results with more resources. You saw practical results with reduced waiting times, more doctors and nurses and so on.

"The challenge we are undergoing now is to achieve better with less – trying to preserve services for the public, particularly for the most disadvantaged groups, while having to think of new, innovative ways of doing that."

That means "making the most of every single pound" through maximising the potential of the internet and using the range of new ideas being developed on influencing behaviour change.

"The scale of budget reductions means I am putting down the challenge to everyone to innovate; to think about completely new ways of providing services," he says.
It takes a while to adapt, no doubt, but Sir Gus must understand that he's not putting down a challenge to anyone. He's retired.

There is nothing innovative about making every pound count. At least there shouldn't be. There never was a time when Whitehall was licensed to waste money.

But never mind that. Note, instead, the way the assumption is introduced that Whitehall will get the best value for our money by maximising the use of the web. That is supposed to be the key to delivering high quality, trusted public services. Three questions spring to mind:
  1. Tony Blair asked Sir Gus, when he took up the reins as  Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office, to concentrate on "transforming government". He was meant to deliver "joined up government". That was in 2005. Six years later, he's left, and the job still isn't started. The same people are still there, in the Cabinet Office, particularly Ian Watmore, who is the new Permanent Secretary. Is there any reason to believe that the Cabinet Office, which has already failed, can now rise to the challenge?
  2. Suppose that all public services are delivered over the web, and only over the web. Then what? Something like ten million people in the UK have never used the web. How are they going to get access to public services? What's to stop them from being excluded?
  3. Once the hackers want to disrupt a service on the web, whoever is running it, even the Pentagon, the defences seem to collapse and the hackers break in. Why should the UK's public services be any different? What's to stop hundreds of billions of pounds of fraud being perpetrated by the Ukrainians, or whoever, once tax is all received over the web and benefits are all paid over the web? And what's to stop the whole system being brought to a halt by the Russians, or whoever?
Sir Gus is now yesterday's man. And perhaps putting all government services on the web is yesterday's big idea. We have a Whitehall department in charge who have already proved that they can't deliver the services. We have a public who, many of them, can't receive the services. And meanwhile, there is an international corps of hackers, some state-backed, standing by waiting to cripple the system and/or steal all the money. It's not the obvious strategy.

The assumption that putting public services on the web is the solution to anything needs to be questioned. Watch out for people like Sir Gus slipping that assumption into their sales talk.

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