Magazine article Public Finance

IT's Better Than Expected

Magazine article Public Finance

IT's Better Than Expected

Article excerpt

Since joining the Cabinet in MaY, I have been working with my colleagues to support and improve public services through next year's Comprehensive Spending Review, which will set spending priorities for the next generation. So it was with great interest that I read Owen Barder's feature on the use of IT in the public sector ('Fear of trying', August 18-31).

As chair of the Cabinet subcommittee on electronic service delivery, I see the application of IT as one of the key enablers for the transformation in the public services that we need: a transformation that is vital for maintaining our recent economic success.

There was a huge backlog of underinvestment in public services when we were elected in 1997. If government spending had continued at the levels we inherited, public services would today be on their knees. Instead, we have invested in new hospitals, wards and schools with far better eguipment, and have modernised transport. As a result, we are much better positioned to deal with the challenges ahead.

But, having corrected the legacy of neglect, taxpayers need to know that the government will secure the best possible value for money as we continue to develop public services. Already this approach has meant much greater use of IT.

Indeed, some people are surprised to discover just how much IT systems have contributed to better services and better efficiency over the past few years. These are projects that are being implemented successfully and are improving both service quality and value for money.

For example, since April 2003, we have phased out the old giro system for paying pensions and benefits - a technology based on wartime ration books. Today, benefits are paid electronically, directly into more than 22.5 million bank accounts and Post Office card accounts. We were told that the project would be a disaster, that elderly people would not be able to cope with Pin numbers and that the IT would break down.

But the doubters have been confounded. The system worked smoothly from day one and proved a big hit with the public. By 2008, it will have saved taxpayers more than £1bn.

Another impressive example is the Jobcentre Plus Job Bank, the most popular job search service in the UK, with details of 400,000 vacancies and used for four million searches a week. It can be accessed via JobPoint terminals in every Jobcentre, and more widely too - via any online terminal through www.direct.gov.uk. There are also JobPoint terminals on the concourse at Stansted Airport and at Asda in Swindon. …

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