Whitehall’s digital divide

Written by Jane Roberts on 1 December 2016 in Opinion
Opinion

The government needs a unified approach to front and back office functions if it wants to make the cost savings digital promises, argues Jane Roberts of TopLevel.

Whitehall sign and union flag

Whitehall needs to address both the front and back end to make savings from digital - Photo credit: Flickr, Steph Gray, CC BY-SA 2.0

One of the central premises for the digitisation of government was cost. If citizens could be persuaded to adopt less costly ways of liaising with government agencies, the argument went, then, over time, significant cost savings of £1.7m a year would be generated.

Cue the digital-by-default drive that saw paper services transferred online in what is frequently referred to as the move to e-government, a precursor to digitisation.

The popular perception is that we are well along the path of digitisation, harnessing digital resources to provide the user with more autonomy and moving towards a joined-up form of government.

But is this accurate? Because if it isn’t, governments risk creating patchwork digital deployments that fail to realise their potential.

Back in 2014, the OECD made the distinction between e-government and digital government and it’s a concept that analyst house Gartner has run with.

This year, it suggested that there is a path that leads from digitisation to open data sharing before achieving the nirvana of ‘smart government’.

This is point at which government becomes free to embrace new technologies from artificial intelligence and bots to the Internet of Things, and government engagement becomes so interconnected that it is truly holistic.


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But while it pays to keep an eye on the future, we need to stop and take a reality check today.

It’s often said that the UK leads the world in terms of digital government – indeed this is the line that ministers regularly take on international visits – but there are still many issues that need to be addressed.

Bureaucracy still reigns supreme – one need only look at the continual speculation over the future of the Government Digital Service to see how political infighting is causing a loss of focus.

Meanwhile, the march of digitisation is causing some to question whether their jobs are at risk from automation and Brexit has thrown another layer of uncertainty into the mix. It has prompted people to re-examine budgets and revisit project plans to reassess viability, potentially threatening some initiatives.

All of these factors could jeorpardise the progress of digitisation unless we are able to assess, justify and refocus – and that means looking again at the bottom line.

Back to basics

Reports state that access via conventional channels can be extremely costly: a face-to-face interaction costs £8.62, while a phone call costs £2.83 and a web message just 15p.

The GDS’s Fajer Qasem and Katie Valentine recently assessed the problems of paper post, costing letter creation and writing at £3.00 per letter.

That compares to just 50p per letter that uses a template that can be automatically populated with content, such as that provided by a case management solution. Of course, this can also be repurposed to reduce costs into the future.

And it’s here that the results really add up because without the ability to make those changes quickly, the cost shoots up. The pair estimated that it would cost £12,000 to make one change to a letter without a digital solution, particularly if a letter was changed more regularly.

Finally, badly drafted letters were found to have a reverse effect on channel shift, accounting for up to 40% of call centre traffic.


There’s little doubt that digitisation can and does create channel shift.

Helping citizens to use online processes rather than resort to calling a contact centre or sending an email is not only empowering but more efficient and cost productive.

The self-service portal launched by HM Passport Office at the beginning of this year saw a 70% of applicants moving to the online channel, away from its call centre.

But a large proportion of government departments have only partially implemented digital access channels and, crucially, have yet to extend these processes through to the back office.

And this is what the GDS blogpost emphasises: government must ensure that customer-facing front office services feed through to digitalised back office processes.

The costs of creating, issuing and changing letters, and handling enquiries is substantial. And the blogpost notes that while some teams have comprehensive case management systems others need to create and manage templates to generate letters.

This reveals just how piecemeal deployment is throughout government organisations.

Government needs a unified approach

There is a clear need for a more unified approach that ensures no one gets left behind, effectively acting as a financial draw on everyone else and creating a digital divide.

Government organisations must now look beyond the frontend that users see. They must seriously assess the costs associated with back office processes and how these can be reduced.

Both front and back office operations need to become part of an end-to-end process.

In the case of the Legal Aid Agency the design of digital customer interface was complemented by a staff facing approvals process, and it last week received a Civil Service Award for its in-house digital capability training.

The deployment was a success not just because it digitalised the service for the citizen but because the attention paid to the back office system eased workflow.

Suddenly the time taken to process applications on behalf of legal aid services providers was slashed to half, from 20 days to 10 and often less.

The next challenge for the digitisation of government is to address this end-to-end process in order to realise both cost and convenience benefits.

And that will require engagement with staff as well as citizens - or government risks missing out on the potential digital offers.

About the author

Jane Roberts is strategy director at Toplevel, a company specialising in digital case management

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