Government and IT- "A Recipe For Rip-Offs": Time For A New Approach - Public Administration Committee Contents

9  Transforming public services

125. Successive governments have made clear their ambition to use IT to transform and improve public services. Technology has the potential to radically redesign how services are delivered. Microsoft argued that:

    Whilst value can be generated by using IT to do the same things more efficiently, much greater value is generated by using IT to do things in a totally new way, transforming service delivery, engaging more directly with citizens and dramatically reducing costs.[165]

126. However, many of the organisations and individuals who contributed to our inquiry were sceptical about Government's ability to deliver transformational change of this magnitude:

    Government thinking about IT appears to lack a channel for formally evaluating "radical possibilities". [...] It is very hard to find any forum in which Central Government will consider them. There appears to be an underlying assumption in IT policy that existing processes must be made more efficient using IT, rather than looking for completely new ways of doing things that are only now viable.[166]

The Institution of Engineering and Technology and the Royal College of Engineering made a similar point, arguing that successful transformation will require the "development of strategic objectives and system architectures that transcend Departmental boundaries and budgets."[167]

127. The Institute of Creative Technologies advocated that the Government should:

    move beyond the 'transformational government' programme, which aimed to impose command and control through large centralised databases, towards principles of transparency, openness, and co-operation in which the individual citizen has far more engagement with and control over data and personal information. [168]

This point was further reinforced by Sirius, an IT company which specialises in Open Source, who commented that

    Open technologies empower individuals and shift power away from the centre. Open technologies build social cohesion and are socially transformative. Government should be as technologically smart as possible, in the service of productive efficiency and participatory democracy."[169]

Recent initiatives such as the Skunkworks team, dotgovlabs,, and the Alphagov project suggest that the Government is moving in this direction.

128. We have decided to highlight four ways in which we think the Government could use technology to enable a transformation in the way it delivers services. These are the release of public data; shifting ownership of personal data towards the individual; engaging users in service design; and opening up on-line channels for service delivery by third parties.

Public data release

129. Opening up access to government data would allow people to extract what they want from the information rather than having to use and access it in a way prescribed by the data's owner. The Government has placed a strong emphasis on its open data strategy, and in particular the website where collections of public data are being published. The Government is also currently creating a Public Data Corporation, which aims to bring public data together in one place.[170]

130. Alongside Government-initiated uses of public data, such as the recently released crime statistics website,[171] "ground-up" initiatives have become increasingly important. One example is the use of "hack days".[172] These events enable a group of developers to work on a particular problem, based on specific data, to develop a number of potential solutions. These rapid prototypes are intended to address a specific problem from the perspective of the user; producing a product based on what the service user would find useful rather than what "Government wants, or what Government thinks it needs".[173] We heard that some government departments are increasingly willing to support these initiatives, asking developers "What can you do with our data? We do not have any ideas, we have this wealth of data, build us something, show us something fun, something that ordinary citizens can actually make sense of. Show us what we can do."[174]

131. Enabling this kind of rapid and effective innovation relies on the routine release and general availability of up-to-date data. We heard that some difficult challenges remain, including information being locked inside content management systems, making it difficult to extract in a useful form.[175] As a result the government often has to pay the company who designed the system a second time to retrieve the information. To tackle this, Professor Shadbolt, a member of the Government's Transparency Board, recommended that government should state explicitly in contracts that system data should be owned by the government, rather than the companies that design or run the system:

    we also need to change procurement so that when we procure we do not forget to say, "And the data in the system will be just available".[176]

132. The ability to re-use data in new and innovative ways can help to improve how public services operate. We are therefore encouraged by recent developments, such as the LinkedGov initiative[177], which aims to "make Government data usable" and to "create as complete as possible a body of public data that is accessible, discoverable, human-readable, machine readable, comparable and internally linked". We welcome the Government's acknowledgement of this approach on its site.[178]

133. We heard concerns that current licensing arrangements pose a barrier to the access of public data. Jim Killock, Open Rights Group, drew our attention to key pieces of data, such as maps and postcodes, for which developers are charged for access. He argued that this information represented "really critical infrastructure" and that charges for this core data caused "either social or economic barriers to people really using data properly".[179] He believed that licensing this data acted against the interests of the department or organisation that owned this data. He gave the example of designing a programme to provide consumers with information about bus and train times:

    The core business of train and bus companies is to get people on trains and buses, but it is nevertheless quite difficult to get the data off them to advertise their services. So in a way, they are trying to charge or licence the data of their train and bus services, and that attempts to charge for the data and provide a revenue stream actually competes against their core business of getting people on transport.[180]

134. There have already been some welcome developments in this area. The Ordnance Survey has released a number of its data sets free of charge through its OpenData and OpenSpace products.[181] The Government is already promoting the re-use of public sector information.[182] It has also recently redesigned the licensing framework and developed a new "Open Government" Licence which aims to ensure interoperability, avoid the need for re-users to apply for licence and cover a wider range of rights.[183]

135. Publicly releasing data has the potential to transform public services radically by allowing individuals to use data in ways most useful to them, rather than having to use and access the data in a way prescribed by the provider. We welcome the Government's commitment routinely to release public data. We recommend that the Government should release live, as well as historic, data sets where this is possible and that in future its information systems are designed to do so by default.

136. Bringing in outside developers to demonstrate to departments the potential of the information they already hold is an exciting way to innovate and provide new tools and services for the Government. We applaud the departments that have already been involved in "hack days" and recommend that all departments work in a similar way.

137. Government must continue to address the issue of public data access by removing licences from its own data and by encouraging publicly funded organisations to do the same. Placing this information into the public domain for free is in the long-term interest of data owners, users and the wider economy.


138. Open Standards refers to the format in which data is published and how it is made available. Historically, many systems used proprietary formats and interfaces. Information could not be easily recognised by, or exchanged between, different systems. This made it costly and time consuming to access important information drawn from across systems, or to switch to other suppliers. The use of open standards has a number of advantages: it makes it simpler to access data; it implies interoperability; it allows future access to data and documents in information systems; and developers do not require access to proprietary software to make use of the data.[184]

139. The Government appears keen to tackle this issue. In January 2011, the Cabinet Office issued a Procurement Policy Note on the Use of Open Standards when specifying ICT requirements,[185] and also launched a survey to help decide which standards should be used to organise government data and systems.[186] The Open Source Consortium has however expressed some concerns about this survey, its inclusion of various proprietary formats and confusion in other areas. [187]

140. Despite the Government's restatement of an open standards policy, it does not appear to be observed during procurement. A preliminary analysis of Official Journal of the European Community contracts carried out for us by Helen Margetts and Scott Hale, Oxford Internet Institute has shown that rather than specifying requirements and standards, such as "word processing software compatible with the open document format", procurement notices continue to specify proprietary products and formats. This suggests another misalignment between Government policy and its execution in Whitehall, which may in part explain the small scale adoption of open standards in the public sector. [188]

141. Adherence to open standards is important if the Government is to make data more readily accessible. It will also help the Government avoid lock-in to any one provider. We welcome attempts to identify the open standards to be used across departments. However, we are concerned that the recent Government survey indicates that the current understanding of open standards is incomplete. The Government should prioritise the adoption of a set of core open standards which focus on interoperability between systems, making data available through open interfaces and formats that allow meaningful public access.

142. Government should omit references to proprietary products and formats in procurement notices, stipulating business requirements based on open standards. The Government should also ensure that new projects, programmes and contracts, and where possible existing projects and contracts, mandate open public data and open interfaces to access such data by default.

Personal data ownership

143. A large amount of data held by Government is personal information about individuals who use its services. Currently multiple departments and service providers acquire similar personal information from citizens and store it on separate systems. This makes it difficult to ensure that all these records are correct, as each one has to be updated separately.

144. Martin Ferguson, Head of Policy at Socitm, provided a personal example where to record a change in his daughter's circumstances, he had had to deal with "10 different public-service and third-sector organisations, all independently, all separately. All had a separate record of my daughter."[189] He argued that this situation should be changed so that each organisation's records "would be capable of being joined in such a way that the different service providers were aware of what others were doing."[190]

145. Inaccuracies and poor user experience caused by the existence of numerous independent records are not the only problems caused by current arrangements. The Information Commissioner argued that the volume of data that the Government stores increases the chance of personal data being lost or unlawfully placed in the public domain.

    High profile security breaches have shown how vulnerable our personal details can be and information systems need to be designed to minimise information risk not solely by including better security safeguards but by adopting privacy friendly data minimisation approaches and ensuring the culture of an organisation drives the protection of personal information.[191]

A recent report by the Ombudsman into the case of a woman who had her personal information changed without her knowledge by a government agency highlights the problems that can be caused by poor information management. In this case, the changes led to her child support entitlement being reduced without her knowledge and her personal information being released to her former partner.[192]

146. The current approach is also expensive to run. It is estimated that 10% of staff and 15% of the revenue budget of one unitary authority is spent on collecting, processing and maintaining personal data.[193]

147. The Government has already trialled methods intended to address some of these problems. The DWP's "Tell Us Once" scheme allows people to inform one government agency about a birth or death and for this information to be passed on their behalf to other relevant agencies.[194]

148. We also heard of a more radical and transformative approach being piloted by the London Borough of Brent. This system provides individuals with a secure, online personal data service run by an independent community interest company which enables the individual to enter and maintain their own personal data in one place. When they want to interact with an online council service, they can authorise the release of relevant personal information from their personal data store.

149. This approach enables citizens to maintain their personal information in one trusted place with every organisation they engage with online. The Council also benefits from knowing that it is dealing with up-to-date information. If the current pilot proves successful, the Council hopes that it will be able to remove many of its duplicated data systems, thereby reducing cost and risk whilst also delivering a better quality service.

150. Letting the individual maintain their own personal data can help ensure cleaner and more reliable records and reduce duplication. It also puts individuals in control, allowing them to authorise the appropriate flow of personal information to and between relevant organisations. For example, an individual could obtain online proof from the DVLA regarding their ownership of a vehicle and then use that proof to confirm to a local authority their eligibility for a resident's parking permit. Even this process could be largely hidden from the user, with automated verification and checking completed electronically whilst they are online, making the whole process potentially as simple as pressing a few on-screen buttons to authorise the data exchange.

151. There are a number of challenges to adopting such an approach. It would require a major change of approach shifting the focus of service design away from public authorities and towards the citizen. Departments and other organisations would also need to assess the technical changes necessary to integrate input from individuals into existing services. The Government would also need to examine the costs of such a change carefully and consider how it would be implemented in practice.

152. This must be balanced against current legal obligations. The Data Protection Act 1998 governs how the personal data of identifiable living people are processed and stored. It places a number of constraints on how long data can be stored for, what data can be used for, how information can be shared between different organisations, and how data are kept secure.[195] If individuals were placed in charge of their own personal data, public authorities might be relieved of most of the legal and administrative burden of keeping information secure and up to date.

153. Not all citizens are comfortable with or able to use online services. Government will have to consider how to engage with this group and make alternative offline access to information available. This is a problem affecting any attempt to migrate provision to an online environment and is work the Government will need to embark on anyway if it intends to realise its vision of having all public services become "digital by default".

154. The Government is already developing an updated model of identity assurance - how users verify who they are - to streamline the way in which citizens can log into online Government services.[196] This system is being developed in partnership with the same company that has been involved in the Brent Council project.[197] Ian Watmore, Efficiency and Reform Group, explained that the Government's approach was to re-use ways of checking people's identity that already existed:

    What we are trying to do there is to reuse what the marketplace is already doing. Rather than build a Government version of that, if the banks already have a good reusable ID assurance platform, why would we not use that to be the trusted access to our world?[198]

155. The Minister emphasised that by doing this the Government would not be creating "a kind of national database",[199] instead it was investigating how it could use information that people had already provided about themselves to verify their identity when they accessed Government services. This new approach to identity could form a complementary part of the new model of personal data ownership.

156. Giving control of personal data to the individual has the potential to improve data quality while reducing both costs and risks. Individuals are used to controlling their own data with private sector companies, such as Amazon and with utility companies. Moving to a model where the citizen maintains their own personal data with an independent, trusted provider and then can choose whether to authorise the sharing of that information with other organisations is an ambitious vision that will need to be trialled extensively. We also recognise that there may be legal constraints and concerns about privacy which could act as a barrier to implementing such a radical reform. We therefore recommend that the Government, working with the Information Commissioner, review potential barriers to the personal data model and explore the ways in which this model could best be developed.

157. We welcome the work being done to create an integrated identity assurance trust model for simplifying access to Government services. We suggest that Government consider integrating this work with the personal data model. This could represent an important step, placing responsibility and control of personal data with citizens in their interactions with public and other online services.

User engagement in service design

158. Another way we believe that Government could transform the way it delivers public services is by using technology to involve users in the design and continuous improvement of its services. The IfG's System Error Report advocated the continual involvement of users during the design of a new system.[200] Such feedback need not be limited to the initial design process alone: technology offers Government the opportunity to refine and improve the design of its services based on the real time flow of citizen feedback.

159. Our witnesses did not believe that the Government was currently doing enough to engage users when designing services, and that too frequently the needs or convenience of central Departments were placed above those of citizens. Dextrous Web, an IT SME, argued that this "failure to base solutions on real user need [...] and to engage those who will actually use a solution"[201] was one of the reasons for the continuing failure of IT to deliver better public services. Similarly Professor Margetts told us that Departments

    are not focused enough on what citizens and consumers are actually doing. That is the one thing that the internet has done: it has allowed companies to know, to understand their customers and be able to treat them accordingly.[202]

160. Mydex, an IT community interest company, argued that a number of IT systems appeared to have been designed with no understanding of how they would be used by citizens. "They were never rooted in an understanding of the individual's journey through life episodes and their interactions with public services".[203]

161. Our survey of government departments, asked how extensively users were involved in the design of their services. The responses varied greatly, with some stating that they had adopted "user centric" design principles and engaged users in order to gather their opinions, others stating that they used periodic surveys, and others that they regarded the idea as "not applicable".[204]

162. It is self-evident that the people using systems, be they frontline officials or members of the public are best placed to provide suggestions on how to improve them. User feedback should be directly integrated into the design of new systems and the development of existing systems and processes to ensure continuous improvement. We recommend that Departments exploit the internet and other channels to enable users to provide direct online feedback both in the design of services and in their ongoing operation and improvement.

Open delivery of online Government services

163. IT-enabled service delivery is predicated on the Government specifying its requirements and then procuring and operating solutions. An alternative model would enable individuals and external organisations to host and design systems that linked into online public services. Tim O'Reilly, a technology publisher, has noted that "… the secret to the success of bellwethers like Google, Amazon, eBay, Craiglist, Wikipedia, Facebook and Twitter is that each of these sites, in its own way, has learned to harness the power of its users to add value to [... and] to co-create its offerings."[205] This open model has proved highly successful for companies such as Facebook, which also allows a range of third-party developers to innovate around its open platform. The majority of applications on Facebook are not designed by its employees but by independent developers whose applications integrate with Facebook's core services. This open platform model provides an interesting insight into how future Government services might operate better: enabling Government information and services to be provided to citizens where and when they need them. "In this model, Government is a convener and an enabler rather than the first mover of civic action."[206]

164. Mr Hughes, Vice-President of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Services, argued that the Government should follow this approach and "allow people [...] outside of the Government cloud to write applications to integrate into back office Government systems."[207] He went on to say that it would "be a great way to drive up adoption of Universal Credit by having applets that the Post Office, Tesco, Sainsbury's and Waitrose could utilise on their own website."[208] Craig Wilson, Hewlett Packard's Managing Director, expanded on this line of thought and argued that the Government should consider allowing others to host Government's online services and that this would be preferable to having all services hosted at a single Government website:

    The idea that these communities are going to be drawn to a Directgov website for all this kind of interaction is quite an old fashioned idea.[209]

While this might appear like a radical suggestion, it is effectively the online equivalent of locating post offices inside other shops, such as supermarkets, to increase their accessibility and custom.

165. Facebook emphasised "the value of creating a web environment that is structured by building specialized applications on an open platform".[210] One of the major advantages of an open platform model is the entrepreneurship and flexibility it fosters. As the basic structure of the website is open for development, companies and public agencies can call on a wide variety of web expertise to create the more specialised applications, features, or tools required to suit specific needs. This also fuels flexibility of development: if one application built on an open platform no longer adds value or needs to be replaced, another can be created without requiring that the underlying system be rebuilt.

166. We see a clear opportunity for Government to adopt this model. IT enabled public services should be provided on an open platform with open interfaces. Government should provide the necessary open infrastructure that empowers people inside and outside of Government to innovate. Making this happen will be part of the transition we have mentioned above from an organisation-centric view of public services to one based on the needs of the citizen. There are obvious parallels between this approach and the Government desire to open up the delivery of public services to non-state actors as part of its Big Society agenda.

167. Government should open up online service delivery to non-public sector organisations and explore ways in which public services can be offered through other websites, applications, devices and providers. This should be developed by providing an open Government platform around which others can innovate and improve, built on the principles of open data, open standards and open source.

168. In doing so Government will need to address issues of liability for the external delivery of Government services. Moving to a model where third parties provide online Government services will require clarity about where citizens should turn for help when they encounter difficulties, as well as clarifying who is accountable for service delivery.

165   Ev w139 Back

166   Ev w1 Back

167   Ev w121 Back

168   Ev w22 Back

169   Ev w46 Back

170   "Public Data Corporation to free up public data and drive innovation", Cabinet Office, see Error! Bookmark not defined. Back

171   See Error! Bookmark not defined.  Back

172   Q 245 [Mr McGreggor] Back

173   Ibid Back

174   Ibid Back

175   Q117 Back

176   Q 118 Back

177   Error! Bookmark not defined.  Back

178   Error! Bookmark not defined. Back

179   Q 245 [Mr Killock] Back

180   Ibid] Back

181   Error! Bookmark not defined. They also have other products for which they charge. Back

182   National Archives, The United Kingdom Report on the Re-use of Public Sector Information, 2010. PSI encompasses a wide range of information, including national and local legislation, statistics, local planning, transport, education, local services and tourist information. Back

183   Ibid, p 6-7 Back

184   POST Note, Open Source Software, June 2005, Number 242 Back

185   Ev 121 Back

186   Error! Bookmark not defined.  Back

187   Ev w136-137 Back

188   Analysis carried out for PASC by Helen Margetts and Scott Hale, Oxford Internet Institute Back

189   Q 278 Back

190   Q 279 Back

191   Ev w 42 Back

192   Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, Fourth Report of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, Session 2010-11, A Breach of Confidence, HC 709 Back

193   Data supplied by Mydex/London Borough of Brent Back

194   Local Government Delivery Council, Case Study: Tell Use Once,  Back

195   Data Protection Principles, Standard Note SN/HA5820, House of Commons Library, 6 January 2011 Back

196   "Cabinet Office outlines Gov-portal 'ID assurance' plans" The Register, 19 May 2011. Back

197   "DWP prepared alternative to ID Cards for Universal Credit" Computer Weekly, 27 May 2011. Back

198   Q 564 [Mr Watmore] Back

199   Q 564 [Mr Maude] Back

200   IfG, System Error: Fixing the Flaws in Government IT, March 2011, p31 Back

201   Ev w98 Back

202   Q 38  Back

203   Ev w82  Back

204   Responses from departments to PASC written questions during the inquiry. Back

205   "Government as a Platform, Tim O'Reilly. In "Open Government. Collaboration, Transparency and Participation in Practice." O'Reilly Media, 2010, p11. Back

206   Ibid, p13. Back

207   Q445 [Mr Hughes]  Back

208   Q445 [Mr Hughes] Back

209   Q445 [Mr Wilson] Back

210   Note to the Committee from Facebook following a site visit. Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 28 July 2011