The government is to unveil its IT strategy later this month, but leaked documents show it could have an impact on privacy
Imagine dialling one phone number to check when your rubbish bin is to be emptied, to find out whether you qualify for tax credits and to book a doctor's appointment. Perhaps it isn't so far away: a single phone number and web address for all public services could be reality in five years, if plans laid out in the government's first IT strategy come to fruition.
Cabinet office minister Jim Murphy said on Monday that the strategy will be published in the next few weeks. But a draft seen by the Guardian sets out a vision of government that admits major failures, and offers some solutions that are likely to be contentious.
It will involve government bodies routinely exchanging personal data about individuals, with the proposed national identity card set to play a major role. The draft also contains proposals for reducing the failure rate of government projects and measures to protect systems from attack.
Changing the focus
However, as widely trailed by its author, government chief information officer Ian Watmore, the strategy is less about hardware and software than about changing the way public services are run. In line with Labour reforms in education and the NHS, IT should underpin a "transformed government" in which "boundaries ... between central and local, and between public, private and voluntary continue to be less important and less visible" than today.
The strategy sets out three phases of work. The first, between now and 2007, will concentrate on ensuring that "massive programmes of change" already begun run on time. From 2007 to 2010, the priority will be to transform "silo-based delivery" into public services centred round citizens and businesses. "The goal should be to have made the key changes, to have embedded the new cultures, and to have made the process irreversible, by 2010," the strategy says.
Beyond 2010, the foundations will be in place for "radical change".
The strategy admits that this ambition is starting from "a relatively poor base". Despite spending £14bn a year on IT, many of Britain's six million public servants work with obsolete technology. Systems were often designed to handle one specific job, rather than "the joined-up customer experience", the strategy says.
"Many of these systems are also quite old, were custom built and consume a relatively large proportion of the available money to service them."
The strategy also admits that heavy investment in electronic government has not prevented "patchy" take-up. Neither have mobile phones and other mobile technology been properly exploited.
To redesign public services, the strategy proposes:
· Identity cards. "Identity management is a subject whose time has now arrived." Government is leading the debate on identity cards, and will be using it as part of a "suite of identity management solutions" to enable public and private sectors to provide cost-effective electronic services.
· Data sharing will increase under new proposals. "The opportunity from information sharing will be clarified and rolled out, balancing the potential value to the customer or taxpayer with privacy concerns," says the strategy.
· Considering a single national public service number for non-emergency services, along the lines of New York City's 311 number and the French government's experimental Allô, Service Public (39 39).
· Consulting citizens and businesses on how services should be designed. "Customer group directors" will listen to groups of users such as pensioners or small businesses and report to a minister. A new service transformation board will design services based on advances in IT.
· A "step change" in the professionalism with which IT projects are run. Many of the government's suppliers have a "patchy track record" making systems work, the strategy says, while suppliers find government a difficult customer. While "public perception is generally low", new measures introduced since 2000 are beginning to turn the tide. The strategy proposes ways to ensure IT firms do not take on too much work.
· Information assurance and cyber security will also need attention, the strategy says.
Although it emphasises savings and "efficiency gains" to be made by rationalising systems, the implication is that investment in IT will continue at a high rate, if only to replace expensive custom systems with commercial off-the-shelf technology.
Savings will come from cutting the number of government call centres and websites. Today, the government has about 4,000 websites. The strategy proposes that two, DirectGov and Businesslink, become "primary online entry points".
A single phone number for government services is a revival of an idea floated in the mid-1990s but abandoned as too complex. New York City residents already have a similar "311" service, which answers 95% of calls within five seconds, according to Dean Schloyer, 311's executive director.
Unlike the UK government scheme, however, 311 handles only one tier of administration. And, far from cutting the cost of government, it has increased the demand for public services by making access easier. The 25m calls received since the launch are "significantly more than the volume of calls received by agencies before", Schloyer said.