Recently my car's tax had run out (stick with me on this). It was a Sunday night and I needed to use the car. In the bad old days, renewing your tax disc was that special kind of hell – government hell. Filling in forms, finding obscure bits of paper (which insurance document do I need?) and then queueing for the duration of the Pliocene epoch at a post office, whose opening hours were for the benefit of its staff, not its users.
But online it took but minutes. Type in a few numbers and pay your £30. I didn't have to scan documents, prove my ID or do anything. It was as effortless as using Amazon and how often can you say that about government services?
That service was just one of many built in part, or full, by a quite remarkable team, the world-beating Government Digital Service (GDS).
Since its founding in 2011, the team, no more than a bunch of very talented young programmers who wanted to use their skills for the public, not private, good has saved the taxpayer £4billion in direct costs and an almost incalculable amount in indirect costs.
To get some idea of the scale of the problems the GDS has faced as it tries to drag Whitehall into the 21st century, there are buildings in the government estate named after the forms they process. The bureaucracy is, quite literally, set in stone.
So successful has the GDS been that the Obama administration shamelessly copied its playbook for its own US Digital Service, as did the Australians.
And thanks to the GDS, the UN ranked the UK best in the world in the 2016 E-Government rankings. Heck, it even won a design award – and when did any government IT project anywhere in the world ever win a design award?
The GDS's future is under threat
In a classic Whitehall mandarin power play, according to a person familiar with the matter, a small cabal of Sir Humphreys, goaded mainly by the Department of Work and Pensions and the HMRC, would rather cling to their fiefdoms than serve their citizens.
In a post-Brexit coup, the previous head of GDS has been ousted, replaced by ex-DWP mandarin Kevin Cunnington. This is the same DWP that dragged its feet with the GDS and whose own IT projects are a text-book example of everything that is wrong with government IT. It has had to write off millions for its troubled £1.146 billion Universal Credit programme and seen the deadline pushed back from 2018 to 2022. By contrast the GDS road tax project took six months.
As former GDS member Andrew Greenway wrote on his blog "What's playing out in the shadows of this strange summer is a timeless Whitehall battle. On one side those who seek to direct from the centre, on the other, big departments who prefer to be left to their own devices. It's a battle that goes back 150 years."
Except for Whitehall Kremlinologists why would anyone care? Bureaucracies do what they always do. They expand. In 1914 the Royal Navy was the largest in the world. The Admiralty employed 2,000 civil servants. By 1954 there were 33,788 with a smaller navy.
It matters because there is something more important that good government IT does than save money. Good IT builds trust and faith in the government. Bad IT – and heaven knows there is enough of that in the public sector – erodes trust and harms democracy.
So in the most direct way imaginable the GDS is strengthening democracy in this country, and typically with the people hardest to reach.
Take for example the £62.10 per week carers allowance, paid to those who have to look after elderly or sick people. It used to take a paper questionnaire of literally hundreds of questions to claim the allowance. It can now be done online in minutes. In one telling anecdote, having brought the service online, the GDS noticed a small, but significant, bump in usage between 3-5am. Assuming at first it was a glitch in the system, the team investigated. It turned out this was the only time that many carers got a respite from their duties and were able to find time to submit their claims.
So arcane are so many government services that people have to hire specialists to help them obtain the services that their taxes have already paid for. Take another example: obtaining lasting power of attorney. Prior to reform it typically cost between £800-£1,500 in solicitors' fees and took months. After the GDS rebuilt the service it can be done online by yourself and costs £110.
When we, the citizens, have to deal with the government we neither know, nor care, what department we have to deal with. It is a huge arrogance to assume that we should know which of the 25 ministerial departments, 21 non-ministerial departments and 374 agencies and other public bodies, (as well as 78 high profile groups, 10 public corporations and three devolved administrations) we have to talk to. The Civil Service works for us. We don't work for it.
With great service comes great democracy
If the Brexit vote taught us one thing, it is that there is a democratic deficit in this country – that a significant sector of society believes that the government does not govern in its interests. When we are faced with government services that are so hard to use, so obscure, designed with the Civil Service, not the user in mind, and that we have to hire people to help us navigate, it simply reinforces the belief that we don't matter, that the machinery of state is there to serve itself, not us.
The GDS has done some largely unsung, unnoticed work in transforming that view. And everybody wins. We, the citizens, win though a better service, the government wins because it saves money, and society wins because trust in government goes up.
Not quite everyone wins. There are two losers: the huge, faceless IT companies whose multi-million pound IT contracts are being taken away from them; and that cabal of Savile Row-suited mandarins whose paper empires are being eroded. That seems like another win.