Phil Gibson 30 November 2015

Spending Review: Digital, digital, digital

We doubt that many CIO’s in local government will call and congratulate the new chief at the Government Digital Service (GDS) for winning an additional £450m of funding from the chancellor.

Mr Osborne has told Parliament that GDS 'will deliver cross-government programmes that will improve public services and deliver efficiencies'. Unfortunately, ‘cross-government’ doesn’t mean cross-public sector - so very little will be invested in the services we use at a local level. Of course, moving more of what we do with the big departments online will lead to efficiencies.

It’s good to see that £1bn is being directed at improving the availability of information for health and care practitioners. Putting case files and care records in the hands of those who need them, at the point of care delivery is vital but unless this money is spent wisely against a well co-ordinated plan, it could evaporate like so many health investments in the past.

Key to the success of the health and social care integration programme is improved communication between the different agencies on the ground. So it’s encouraging to read that: 'Greater integration and collaboration between public services is helping to drive out inefficiency across the public sector. The Government has taken bold steps to integrate public services by empowering local areas.'

The ‘bold steps’ referred to are presumably the restructuring that we are seeing in places like Greater Manchester but reorganisation and budget sharing must be supported by digital infrastructure and information sharing tools at the point of need. Integrated and efficient care is one of the biggest opportunities the public sector has to achieve the win-win of better services and lower costs.

But where will the effective, pan-public sector strategy come from? How will all the individual projects and initiatives be co-ordinated against an overall framework so that information can flow freely but safely? With huge cuts to the department of health and cabinet office, it’s doubtful we will see this leadership coming from the centre.

According to Andrena Logue, healthcare director at the specialist public sector intelligence analyst house, Kable, that leadership is likely to come from a local level: 'devolution will work from a tech stance for the NHS, but its participation will likely be driven in part by proactive local authorities. The £10m promised to support the Healthcare Innovation Test Bed programme will better position healthcare in a combined R&D and digital context, which feeds into economic hub strategies that many councils have developed.'

The CSR did little to appease local government’s obvious need for a financial injection. Recent figures from the Local Government Association claim that local government is facing a financial black hole, widening by £2.1bn a year, and reaching £14.4bn by 2020.

But there is a choice for all departments and organisations across the sector - either make more cuts (many would argue no more cuts can be made and any attempt would just hit bare bone) or fundamentally reinvent the way it works.

The core of the problem is the fact that the structure of the public sector is fundamentally unchanged over 50 years but our needs, and crucially the technology available to serve those needs, have changed beyond recognition.

It seems that politicians recognise that services must be delivered in different ways – a simple search of the words ‘digital’ and ‘technology’ in the spending review document highlights this – 58 times and 34 times respectively. Compare this to the 2010 document – four and 11 respectively!

We are told that £1.8bn in digital technology and transformation projects is being invested across the public sector over the next four years and this should be good news for suppliers who understand how their solutions can drive out cost and improve service. But there are cultural barriers that hamper collaboration and this is driven by a fear that information security rules will be broken. There is a lack of guidance regarding the processes and the information governance that allows these people to get on with their jobs safely and easily and not have to worry about whether they are breaking rules.

It is important that the leaders of authorities, trusts, and government departments recognise that technology can deliver and safeguard the information their people need to deliver better services at lower costs, but the willingness to collaborate and share must come from a cultural change led from the top.

Phil Gibson, chairman of Innopsis - the industry association for companies driving better public services through innovative information sharing

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