This is an article I wrote for The Times before the spending review on 25th November.
‘I’m glad I’m not a senior civil servant. They must be having a tough week. I imagine most are in the thick of late-night phone calls, meetings and spreadsheets to sort out the spending review. And if my experience of an enormous cost-cutting exercise is anything to go by, it is hard to plan but far harder to execute the plan.
Yet I fear that despite all the hard work, we are not going to make the imaginative leaps we need to if we are ever going to provide high-quality public services for manageable amounts of money. The scale of cuts to departmental budgets is of such a magnitude that a complete rethink of many services is essential.
The internet is the organising principle of our age and yet we are not yet organising our country and our public services around it. Too often the excuse is wheeled out that we cannot do more online because some people are unable to or don’t want to use the internet.
How about we flip the question and imagine what would be possible if we empowered the most vulnerable and disconnected people? Rather than death by a thousand cuts, I would argue that this is the time to be much bolder. In the Netherlands, the Buurtzorg community nursing organisation invested in 7,000 frontline nurses with only 30 back-office people. Each nurse was given a smartphone so patient care could be recorded as it happened. They flipped round their structure — rather than fewer nurses and more admin they have more nurses, using internet-enabled technology, and less admin. Patients rate it highly. The nurses have 60 per cent less absenteeism and a 33 per cent lower turnover than similar organisations. Academics suggest that doing something similar in the UK would save about £6 billion a year in community nursing alone. Even a sceptic has to take that seriously.
The Government Digital Service, created in 2010, is a recognised world-leader in creating digital public services. In the past three years it has helped to save more than £1 billion by building digital services that make life easier – such as simplifying applications for a Lasting Power of Attorney.
But we need to go much, much further and make sure everyone is included. The internet allows us to redesign services so they’re cheaper, better, faster. Old processes can be stopped or improved, which frees up money and resources to put into really important work on the frontline. I hope that this week’s spending review helps us leapfrog into the future — where the internet empowers the UK, where there are more jobs in the areas we care about and with better care for citizens, not less. We will find out soon enough.”