Liam Maxwell is a Councillor and the Lead Member for Policy and Performance at the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead. He is the author of It's ours – why we, not government, must own our data, which is published today by the Centre for Policy Studies.
Since 1997 the Government must have got through at least £140 billion on information systems in a naïve belief that if you spend enough the men in white coats can make government more efficient. At the moment the cash burn rate of IT is £16.7 billion a year, that is more than 1% of our entire GDP and much higher than any similar country. It is also, according to Andy Burnham no less, almost 50% more than we spend on drugs in the NHS.
A recent study showed that only 30% of commissioned systems work. Budgets get broken by ludicrous amounts. We all know about the NHS supercomputer and the Offender Management System, but here’s a new one just out from the NAO: the Department for Work and Pensions want to get more people to use their online customer system. More than half of their customer-base can use the internet and yet after huge spending the take-up was – to use the National Audit Office's words – “tiny”.
Out of the 142 million contacts with the public, only 340,000 (about 0.25%) used the online services. What a waste. Why do they get it so wrong?
Government relies heavily on huge contractors who convince them that big ideas need HUGE spending. According to the LSE, 80% of the major contracts come from just 5 top suppliers – compare that to 20% for Holland or 48% for the US. Each department has gone off on its own and set up its own IT systems. Each group seems to have re-invented the wheel many times. There is an ongoing turf war between departments about who owns the “key” data field on us.
But at bottom Labour just doesn’t get it.
Web 2.0 applications such as Youtube and Facebook have been so successful because they have used a simple model and allowed others to work it in the way that best suits their applications. That freedom is at the heart of the internet revolution. But government IT is only just edging towards a recognition that the Internet exists, not offering ways to exploit it.
In part this is a political and cultural issue, the civil service and this very statist government have always wanted to control from the centre, to have a dashboard through which they can judge what public services they think you need. In 2004 Labour hired a guru Sir David Varney who convinced Blair and Brown that they needed “a ‘deep truth’ about the citizen based on their behaviour, experiences beliefs needs and rights.”
The trouble is not just that that would need a legion of data checkers, not to mention for a hefty dose of public trust (which the HMRC scandal dispensed with). The fundamental issue is that this approach is the wrong way up. It is as if Mustapha Mond were in charge. What’s the answer?
Well, first of all we should procure services differently. In January the Thompson Report showed that government project management and execution would be better if the huge projects were cut up into smaller chunks. It would also require government systems to employ open standards so that applications and data could interact with each other. And the office of an executive Chief Information Officer with teeth to force through change.
But no big single database – government must not be able to get away with nationalising some of our most valuable property. We should all own our own personal data.
That is how Amazon, Facebook, Google and co work effectively. They allow access to our data so that people, organisations and companies can interact with us, but we control the data itself. This makes sure data is up to date, but it also allows us to offer access to government (or the third sector bodies that government would like us to use) on our own terms.
Data should be hosted by a small number of private sector suppliers with the government as the default provider. I’ve christened this Government Relationship Management. It puts the power where it should be, in the hands of the people: our data, under our control.
This works in the delivery of world-class secure e-commerce and in the US Google Health and Microsoft Healthvault lead the market offering online health records management to people. In Sweden this approach helps patients plan their own home healthcare more effectively.
I’m not advocating compulsion here. These arrangements would be voluntary. The State would remain as the default holder of personal data. All those who either cannot or do not wish to opt out of central control would still have full access to public services. Nor would they apply to matters of national security, or law and order. So it is not proposed, for example, to allow criminals to control their police records.
It is difficult to estimate exactly but in the medium term this approach should halve our IT spend – almost all other advanced governments operate at that level, what makes us so different?
Giving us back our data will save us money, make government IT more effective and make the delivery of services better. After all, it is our data.