by Jerry Fishenden

Catching up with Kenya

Jul 22, 20112 mins
MobileSmall and Medium Business

It’s not often people get excited about the role of IT in public services for the right reason — usually it’s to whinge about the large amounts wasted on botched and inadequate systems.

But when I spoke at a recent Design Council conference on designing online social security, there were passionate exchanges about using IT to deliver better services.

The idea of moving government services online dates back to the mid-nineties, but over the years many innovative prototypes have fallen by the wayside.

While the UK was struggling to modernise its public services, countries like Kenya adopted innovative new systems.

M-PESA, an electronic payment system accessible from mobile phones, processes more transactions in Kenya alone than Western Union does globally.

It helps provide government services such as electronic delivery of social welfare payments.

So how far has the UK come in comparison?

In 2008, an LSE report found that out of 145 million citizen contacts with DWP, only 340,000 were online. Yet over half of DWP clients were online with broadband access.

Now two ambitious government programmes intend to deliver not only modern digital services but also powerful policy modelling and automation tools.

Universal Credit and Real Time Information are bold initiatives to modernise welfare and taxation by moving both to an intrinsically digital design.

These systems are being built around open interfaces, make use of modern policy automation tools in place of expensive hand-crafted code and reuse the existing BACS infrastructure.

They will provide a dynamic platform that meets current needs and supports future modelling and changes in welfare and taxation.

For example, these new systems would enable Scotland to implement local benefits and taxes that differ from the rest of the UK. Such changes could be made in weeks, rather than the average two and half years it apparently takes to modify existing systems.

Other policy options, such as local income taxes in place of council tax, would also be easy to explore, model and implement.

As these programmes are delivered, the UK will not only catch up with countries like Kenya, but surpass them. These new systems will not only modernise two essential public services, but bring IT where it needs to be: at the very heart of policymaking itself.

Jerry Fishenden is a director of the Centre for Technology Policy Research