Alexander Hitchcock is senior researcher at Reform whose new report, Work in Progress, is published today.
One of the Prime Minister’s most immediate Brexit aims is a radical rethinking of the way the UK does business. Calling for a low-tax, highly competitive digital economy recognises that normal service cannot continue if the UK is to shine internationally.
A more agile country is also needed to meet the demands and challenges of citizens whose expectations are higher than ever – and a leaner, smarter country requires a leaner, smarter state. Public services should be efficient and responsive to people’s needs to meet the cocktail of challenges they face.
Fiscal headwinds persist: this year, the Office for Budget Responsibility labelled public services “unsustainable” in the long run. The deficit is still forecast to be almost £70 billion this year. Productivity in the public sector has flatlined over the last decade and a half.
Reforming a flabby state has been the backbone of Conservative thinking for centuries, and in 2010 David Cameron spoke of creating a “post-bureaucratic age”. Theresa May’s attacks on police red tape as Home Secretary show that creating leaner working patterns is in her DNA.
Yet the public sector remains a byword for bureaucracy. There are 137,000 administrators in Whitehall. There is one receptionist for every GP in the country. A total of over 200,000 administrators in the NHS should be a cause for concern for any government.
Reform research published today calculates that current technology could replace 250,000 administrator roles in the public sector, saving over £4 billion from the annual wage bill. Chat bots instead of call centres and automatic updates for citizens, for example on their taxes and benefits, would drive this change.
In healthcare, artificially intelligent triage apps on smartphones, of the type offered in the private sector, and online booking can replace up to 24,000 receptionist roles – making interactions with the NHS quicker and more effective.
It is not only administration roles that will be affected. Front-line staff are bogged down by unnecessary paperwork and tasks.
The Royal College of Nursing argues that up to 20 per cent of nursing time is spent on “non-essential” paper work. Up to 30 per cent of a doctor’s role can be replaced by robots capable of doing anything from administering anaesthesia during simple procedures to reading radiological scans. Not only can this be done more accurately, but it frees doctors to focus on other tasks and the human side of medicine – interacting with patients and their families.
Paperwork is not the only problem. Experts interviewed for Reform’s research pointed to a “frozen middle” layer of management that stifles innovation across public services. Some Whitehall departments have 14 employee grades – one more than the Treasury Select Committee chided HMRC for in 2011, on the basis that they inhibited employees from doing their jobs most effectively.
In the police, a senior leader cited in Reform’s paper has argued that too many layers of management have enabled officers to “fiddle crime figures”. Removing excessive management roles will ensure responsibility for work is clear – and will empower employees to take ownership of their work.
Doing so will also require a more open culture that looks to learn from past mistakes. Burying negative reports should be consigned to political satires. Jeremy Hunt has recognised that blame games in the NHS are no way to resolve the issue of medical error – which affects one in ten people entering hospital. The Secretary of State for Health’s ambition for the NHS to be “the world’s largest learning organisation” is exactly the right message.
But, as Bernard Jenkin pointed out last week, this requires bodies independent of the NHS to investigate errors and protect whistle blowers. Combining Hunt’s aim with Jenkin’s blueprint would set the tone for other areas, like policing and the civil service.
Turning the public sector’s business model on its head will free public servants to be servants of the public. After all, demands and expectations have changed drastically since Whitehall, the NHS, and the police were founded. People conduct 80 per cent of banking online and expect to interact with government services in a similar way.
Crime is also changing: recent statistics reveal that in 2015-16, 5.2 million crimes were fraud and computer misuse – almost as many as the 6.2 million traditional crimes, such as burglary. Bobbies on the beat are not going to meet these demands – computer algorithms and cyber experts will.
New ways of working can radically change the way services are provided – to the benefit of citizens and taxpayers.