Digitising public services in the UK: An introduction

Better public services that are more integrated and readily available than ever before. That’s the manifesto behind the Government’s decision to digitalise public services in the UK. However, is it really working?
In this introduction to digital public services in the UK, we examine what’s gone digital so far and what you can expect in the future.

How is the UK digitising public services?

At the D5 London summit in December, 2014, the UK Government made no qualms about the fact that it is “among the world leaders” when it comes to digitising public services. So is the boast really true? Let’s take a look at some of the actions that have already been implemented in the transformation:

  • Streamlined services: Just a few years ago there were 1,700 government websites focusing on different services. Now however, there is just one: in the form of GOV.UK. The idea is that the website is built to meet users’ needs and it is estimated to have saved more than £60million from 2013-2014.
  • Vote registration: The registration system for voting in the UK has moved online and replaced the forms that were traditionally sent to properties. It is believed that the system is also helping to prevent fraud and more than 2.4million people registered using the service in just five months.
  • Visa applications: Around 3.44million tier two priority visas are issued every year to allow for recruitment beyond the EEA where vacancies cannot be filled by EEA or British workers. The new system should make visa applications easier than ever.
  • Driving at your fingertips: It will be possible to view driving records online, including disqualifications, penalty points and the vehicles you can drive. It is expected that the service will offer quick access to driving records for around 40million drivers.
  • Visitations: There is a new online service for booking visits to prison and rehabilitation centres. The system will allow around 1.5million visits to be booked: previously they were carried out using manual, phone or email systems.

Of course, this is just a small sample of some of the services that have been rolled out by the Government. In total, there will be 25 exemplar services offered by the time the full roll-out is complete in March, 2015. Other services include: finding an apprenticeship; redundancy payments; renewing patents; land registry; student finance; waste carrier registration; rural payments; carer’s allowance; universal credit; claiming personal independent payments; digital self-assessment; tax accounts; civil claims; and more.

Birmingham Council House 400

So has the digital public services roll-out been a success?

So are people ready to make the change to digital public services? If you believe the statistics being released by the UK Government, then the early signs are that this has been an overwhelming success.

  • Visitors spike: Since being launched in October 2012, GOV.UK has already notched up more than one billion visits. It has nearly two million visitors every day and is the 27th most accessed website in the UK according to statistics in October, 2014.
  • Carers go online: According to statistics released in December, 2014, around 54 per cent of carer’s allowance applications are currently being made through the digital service suggesting that people have made a fast switch to the new program. The service incorporates a new way for disabled users to confirm they have understood the claim: so there is no need to sign a declaration on paper.
  • Drivers in the fast lane: Already more than 145,000 drivers have accessed their driving records online. Prior to the launch of the service it was necessary to contact the DVLA to receive any details you need: requiring phone calls, emails or letters. However, now the service is instant.

So what is the next step in digitising public services in the UK?

The roll-out of the 25 services will be complete in March with a live digital by default service standard assessment for rural payments, visas and applying for employment tribunals. However, on the completion of the live stage, there are a number of post-launch services to be incorporated too, including: operational support; monitoring of system performance; optimising the code; and efforts to ensure the service remains secure.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that it will all be plain sailing for digitalisation. There are a number of challenges facing the UK Government in making this transition complete: not least of which is persuading older users to switch to digital services.

There have been many attempts to move online in the past and they have generally failed. The key now, perhaps, is that the digitalisation of public services should be based on platform-based principles and technical standards being opened up. This should mean sustainable reform with an equal partnership between the digital organisations and the internal organisation. In the long run, Governments may even be able to support these digital services without directly running them: effectively acting as a co-ordinator.

As secretary general of Seecom Vuk Vujnovic states, “digital services are not about technology: they are about empowering people.” As long as the Government takes this approach to a citizen focused service then it should reap the rewards of a successful transition.

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