Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 913 - 919)




  913. You have been asked to support the Chief Secretary of the Treasury and the e-minister in a cross-cutting review in the year 2000 Spending Review on the knowledge economy, which will consider the funding of electronic government. What are you telling the Treasury? It is a very interesting role that you have here? The nature of your relationship with the Treasury is one that interests us.

  (Mr Allan) By way of background, my home department is the Treasury and I have worked for many years there. We are actually doing it jointly with the Treasury: it is not a question of it being a Treasury review that we are giving evidence to. We are involved, and Chris Parker, who is with me today from my team, is involved in the secretariat and preparing the work. What we are doing in the Review is really looking at how we can achieve the targets that the Prime Minister has set. We are making sure that the Department has the programmes in place to achieve the targets of getting all government services on-line by 2005, as we discussed earlier, and also looking at the issue of universal access. On the Government side of it, I think one of the key messages that we are putting across to departments and looking at is really ensuring that departments see that this is a part of their business process—that it is not an independent target, but has to be part of how they are planning to organise their work over the next several years. What we want to see out of this is departments demonstrating that they have strategies in place specifically to meet the targets. We are also looking at how, in doing that, they can integrate and streamline existing delivery channels, how they can manage the manpower requirements and the manpower consequences of the changes, and also, as Patricia Hewitt said, how they can revise and integrate the back-office legacy systems with the new front-office delivery systems. We are also very keen to look at how we can prioritise, how we can avoid scarce resources being over used, how we can find savings through taking advantage of synergies, through direct efficiency savings, and through looking at ways of working together with the private sector. This is not something where the Government plays a role and the private sector is not involved at all. Many, many operators in the private sector are getting involved in this area and we want to make sure that we work with them and take advantage of opportunities to work to reduce costs to the Government, and to recoup revenues, or whatever the appropriate model may be. We also want to look very hard at how we can encourage innovation within departments to make sure that we are not just thinking that with the new technology we have the same delivery mechanism, just slightly tweaked to take advantage of new electronic systems. We want to encourage people to look innovatively at how they run their business, and whether they should be run in a different way. Finally, we are looking at the role of the centre. How do we ensure it all gets done? How can we make sure that department do not simply get given money and then discover they are not actually doing quite what they said they would do, and equally how we can have better co-ordination across departments so that we do not reinvent the wheel and have lots of different departments all spending money doing identical thing that they could do co-operatively together, and looking at the cross-cutting activities.

Lord Skelmersdale

  914. That is an excellent summary of chapter 2 of the e-government White Paper, and a somewhat general answer. How far down the road are you in actually identifying those subjects and departments in terms of cross-cutting initiatives and joined-up services? More importantly, how is all this going to affect departmental budgets?
  (Mr Allan) We have been looking at cross-cutting operations for some time and we will be taking forward the work that has already been done. The Modernising Government White Paper itself set out certain life episodes; leaving school, having a baby, becoming unemployed, changing address and so on, and those are the sorts of initiatives that clearly provide a way where e-government can join up services, so that if somebody is becoming unemployed they can go to a single entry point and not have to go to a number of different departments and work out how they have to do it and fill in the same forms however many times. Equally, we are taking that forward very immediately in the work we are doing on the Government portal—the UK On-line portal—so that we can offer some of those sorts of services. An example would be a change of address. To what extent can we, perhaps working with the private sector, offer a way that people can notify the Government once that they are changing address rather than many times. An important area where we are also some way down the track is on the small business services, where we have set up the new website and the intention very much is that that will be a joined-up initiative that will enable a small firm to go to one entry point and get information from a whole host of different departments. In terms of further work, there are two things really. First of all, we are now, as part of the Spending Review, looking at where we can find new initiatives and actually take them forward, and we are talking to the various departments at the moment. We are also working on a government gateway project, and the objective of this is that we will have a system that will enable information from departments to be drawn together and then presented in a common way to whoever wants to package them in a way that promotes joining up. This will be the technical underpinning for cross-cutting and joining up.

  915. I am actually looking for a concrete departmental example. In Northern Virginia you can sit at your computer and apply for and get your driving licence. I have absolutely no suggestion that that might ever happen here.
  (Mr Allan) That certainly is very much part of the initiative that we want to see, to get all services on-line by 2005, and where we can get them on earlier, we will do. There are a tremendous number of things that you can now do on-line or which are coming on soon. We have already mentioned that you can now lodge your tax return on-line with the Inland Revenue. There are a huge range of business services available on-line. British Trade International are looking at what can be done internationally. You can get export sales opportunities from all the embassies abroad e-mailed to your desk-top if you specify what particular subjects interest you. We have Companies House database already on-line. You can do a tremendous amount through the Land Registry, and we are moving very fast on some of the other areas. I think you can already register a business car on-line now.

  916. A business what?
  (Mr Allan) You can register a business vehicle on-line with the DVLA, I think that is right. We are obviously working towards being able to do that for individuals too.

Lord Cavendish of Furness

  917. I want to talk about procurement. Are, will and how quickly are government department moving to have procurement electronically?
  (Mr Allan) It is progressing quite quickly and it is very much a Treasury responsibility. The new Office of Government Commerce that has been set up with Peter Gershen as its head is tasked with getting savings from government procurement, particularly through moving procurement on-line. The Competitiveness White Paper set targets of 90 per cent of low value goods and services to be purchased on-line by 2001, and we are working now on an electronic hub that will be set up to departments, again working together in a cross-cutting way, to actually use that to achieve the 90 per cent target. I hope we will soon equally be able to set targets for on-line tendering. I think that is particularly important. At the moment it is very expensive in some cases to tender for large government contracts and this is a way that will provide big savings and make it much faster too. What we have to do to get that working is have systems to check the validity, the proof of identity and provide appropriate audit trails. The other thing that we are doing is also using new technology available now to gather information from departments on how the Government spend the money, to see if there are ways in which we can be more intelligent purchasers. The striking thing is that an individual supplier will know, down to the last penny, how much he supplies to the Government, but as a whole it is very difficult for the Government to get that information from all the Government agencies who will buy from that one supplier.

  918. Would you have any examples of before and after, the stationery or something like that?
  (Mr Allan) I do not. I am sure we may be able to supply it. I know that Peter Gershen looked at the highest and lowest prices paid for gas and electricity and found huge variations between those who had made a big effort to find the lowest price and those who had simply taken the easiest option. I am sure there are other examples.


  919. Did I hear you say you have set a target date for that?
  (Mr Allan) 2001.

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