The UK government is sloughing off decades of digital profligacy after setting up its own geek squad offering home-grown IT solutions that are ovel and more user-friendly than outside-sourced systems. Writing in The Times this morning (paywall, no link, sorry), Rachel Sylvester describes what she calls a quiet revolution in government. In an office between Holborn and Old Street’s Silicone Roundabout, the Government Digital Services is apparently stuffed with teenagers in hoodies tapping furiously on Macs. Last year the geeks engineered £500m savings and this is expected to rise to £1.2 billion by 2015. Says Sylvester:
The computers at the Government Digital Services cost at least two thirds less than those in other departments. At the same time the average cost of a digital transaction is 20 times lower than using the phone, 30 times lower than the post and 50 times lower than a face-to-face arrangement. There are implications for every part of the public sector. By introducing digitalised construction programmes across Whitehall, the Cabinet Office believes it can save 40 percent on the cost of building secondary schools.
The gov.uk website recently won the Design of the Year award, beating the Olympic cauldron and the Shard. Now, it seems, the geeks are doggedly plodding from department to department to transform the way they operate. After becoming used to ordering goods on Amazon with a few clicks, citizens are no longer prepared to put up with badly designed and impenetrable public web sites. Nor, increasingly, are they content with older, slower means of communication. GDS is offering slicker and more user-friendly options at a fraction of the cost of outside consultancy projects.
It looks like the government, for once, is ahead of the game. One example: An outside contractor wanted £30,000 to change a logo on a department web site. The job was done in 15 minutes by one of the Government Digital Services’ teenagers in jeans.
Apparently, though, there could be trouble at t’digital mill. Jealous contractors, used to living for decades on overblown contracts, are lobbying the more staid Mandarins of Whitehall who are not entirely convinced that the GDS geeks are part of the “real” civil service. Fortunately, though, the days of expensive outsourcing are over. I have no doubt it is cheaper and better for governments to run their own IT and make things easier for the long-suffering taxpayer.