by Jerry Fishenden

Platform alteration

Mar 20, 20122 mins
GovernmentIT StrategyMobile Apps

See also: HMRC deputy CIO Mark Hall profile

Government information systems were once considered among the largest in the world, designed to handle tasks such as the tax and welfare transactions of national populations.

However, that privileged position was rapidly eroded as the internet took off.

Today, consumer-focused organisations such as Google, Facebook and the banking community operate IT at a scale and speed that dwarfs government, relegating its use of IT to the middle ranks.

The BACS network, for example, processes more than 5.6 billion financial transactions a year.

Compare that with the volumes that the government handles: on their peak day 445,000 self-assessment tax returns were handled by HMRC online — less than 0.5 per cent of the peak daily volume of direct debit transactions over BACS.

Despite this, some still believe that government’s IT needs are more complex and larger than anything else, and that it needs to continue building expensive bespoke systems.

Government certainly does have an essential duty of care, but almost all public sector financial transactions, whether inbound (tax) or outbound (welfare), rely on third-party services: external consumer service networks are already an integral part of the government’s critical IT infrastructure.

Government dependency on such external systems is recognised in flagship programmes such as HMRC’s real time information (RTI) and DWP’s universal credit (UC), both of which re-use existing UK-critical national IT infrastructure.

This represents a significant first step in the consumerisation of IT in government: the start of re-platforming government services, reinventing the way they are designed and operate.

In the highly scalable operations of tech-savvy private sector organisations, any task that needs to be done more than once is usually automated.

Ownership is bottom-up, influenced by those using or running the services, and user requirements derive directly from the coalface.

IT enables services to be devolved to the most appropriate local level. For government, what were once expensively bespoke, manually-intensive functions can become a set of common service rules that interact with citizens and businesses.

The Haldane Report of 1918 foresaw the need for fewer departments in Whitehall, but lacked a practical way to make government smarter and more efficient. Nearly 100 years on, the re-platforming of IT could finally help make that happen.