Five years ago government IT projects were a byword for failure. Typically way over budget, late, expensive, they were notorious for never doing quite what was intended.
Gradually we’ve changed all that. Government used to embark on a lengthy procurement process to pay a big company to build a new IT system. The procurement itself could take years, then the build would take more years. By the time it was built the technology was certain to be obsolete.
Because it took so long, governments would issue a multi-year contract so as not to have to repeat it too quickly. By the end of the contract the technology would be vintage and the requirements would have been changed, expensively. I found one contract where the government had to pay the supplier £30,000 to change a single word on its website.
We’ve changed all that. We set up the Government Digital Service - GDS. We’ve got rid of hundreds of websites and put everything onto gov.uk. We’re putting more and more services online, so people can do things with government at their own convenience. It’s better for the public and it saves loads of money.
Over the next few years a whole lot of big expensive government IT contracts come to an end. Our new approach will be to build ‘government as a platform’. This means having services that can operate right across government instead of reinventing the wheel a hundred different times. So we’ve created a single identity assurance programme which will be used for the whole of government.
We’ll create a single payment system, a single appointment booking system, a single system for issuing licences and for registration. We’ll increasingly have a single email programme. We don’t need always and expensively to pay big multinational suppliers to build new black box systems. With some of government suppliers, we can’t even get access to our own data stored on their systems without paying for it.
Last week I received an email from a friend who’s a minister in the Australian Government. He was letting me know that he’s succeeded in setting up an operation in Canberra modelled on our GDS. He said: “If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery you should feel very flattered!” Last summer in Washington DC I visited the US Digital Service. They also say they copied what we’ve done. The source code for gov.uk is being used by the New Zealand Government, among others.
So it’s quite a turnaround. Better public services, delivered at much lower cost, and using many more small and innovative British based suppliers.
And all done in a way that is world-leading, with others picking up and replicating our model.