How we can make passport backlogs a thing of the past
We’re going to completely transform the experience of using the 75 most-popular government services
June 9, 2022 6:00 am(Updated 6:01 am)
A former bank on the edge of Altrincham’s market square, all mock Tudor beams and heavily leaded windows, doesn’t seem like an obvious place to witness the future of healthcare in action. But that’s exactly what the team at Informed Solutions are shaping, using AI to analyse NHS data on millions of patient safety incidents so that clinicians can easier learn from what does and doesn’t work.
By reducing what would previously require years of effort to the work of a few hours, it has the potential to help the NHS save both lives and money. And it provides a glimpse of how countless public services, from passport applications to police digital forensics, could be made that much better, that much more efficient, if government were to truly embrace the digital age and properly tap the vast reservoir of data it already holds.
That’s something I’m determined to see happen. Steve Jobs once said the computer can be a bicycle for the mind – but that doesn’t have to mean reinventing the wheel. We just need to help public servants make better use of the kind of systems and insights that are already in daily use over in cutting-edge parts of the private sector, powering everything from banking to holiday bookings.
I realise that “digital” and “public sector” have long been phrases that conjure images of countless billions handed to smiling consultants for complex bespoke systems that over-promise and under-deliver, usually arriving a decade or so late into the bargain. The Public Accounts Committee and Parliament have highlighted many such examples.
But this is something that, in places, we’re already getting right. During the pandemic, something called the Public Health Data Asset gave immediate, real-time insights into vaccine take-up. This meant we could swiftly identify which communities and which areas of the country were proving reluctant to get jabbed, and so better target communications and support. Elsewhere, Whitehall departments have cut their storage and server costs in half by moving to cloud-based solutions.
So, we know we can do this; we just need to scale up both skills and application so that we can sort out the public services that, at best, have gone digital in a confusingly piecemeal fashion, and which at worst remain defiantly analogue.
The Passport Office and DVLA, for example, still groan under the weight of a vast number of paper forms, each filled out delivered and processed by hand. And it’s irritating enough that you need half a dozen apps on your phone to pay for car parking – but making full use of all online services offered by central government requires as many as 191 different accounts accessed via 44 different sign-in methods.
In 2022, taxpayers deserve a quicker, simpler, digitally enabled customer journey that starts with a single, straightforward, secure One Login system that will help millions of people connect with a huge range of government services through one portal instead of dozens. A small and obvious step, but one that will help veterans access services a little easier, make filling out your self-assessment form a little quicker, and signing your mortgage deed with the Land Registry a little less stressful.
Building on the work done urgently and successfully during the pandemic, we’re launching an all-new Integrated Data Service that will make it quick and easy for analysts to make use of the vast trove of data government collects. By securely combining a range of different datasets, researchers can identify patterns, spot problems, develop solutions more quickly, better tailoring policies to business and taxpayer needs.
A greater use of technology, such as machine learning and cleaning up the data to enable it, will transform the experience of contacting a government call centre. It’s not about removing the human element, but supporting it – with more routine enquiries handled by automated chats to get the quick answers you need, so that staff have the time and space to concentrate on dealing with complex problems where the human touch makes all the difference.
And all this is just the start. We’re going to completely transform the experience of using the 75 most-popular government services, while doing still more behind the scenes.
Because in 2022 our lives are online, mobile and flexible, with that trend vastly accelerated by the Covid pandemic – and government should be no different if we are to harness innovation already being demonstrated by our best companies.
Steve Barclay MP is Chief of Staff at 10 Downing Street and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
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