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UK's Gordon Brown offers sweeping vision of "smarter government"

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, December 7 2009

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is attracting attention with an address delivered in London on "smarter government" that lays out a sweeping vision for a 21st century UK that is savvier about technology, to the end of making that nation's government more responsive to the people it serves. It is, arguably, a more comprehensive treatment of open, participatory government than Barack Obama has yet delivered. A taste:

Let me first of all thank the Institute for Government and the Royal Society for hosting this event today. Let me thank Sir Michael for those thoughtful opening words. And let me thank the Institute for Government for all their work - in creating here in Britain a world-leading authority on shaping and developing more effective government, and developing it through international research and evidence-based advice that draws on best practice from across the world. In the coming months, our country faces a profound choice.

Of course, there will be a general election when voters will choose which politicians they want to form the next government; but behind that choice lies an even more profound one, about the future of our country: two competing visions about managing our economy through and out of recession; two competing visions about a fair society; and two competing visions about the future of our health service, about excellence and opportunity in education and our public services. And over the last few months, two competing visions of how we govern ourselves have begun to emerge in response to the new challenges we all face.

So today inspired by the opportunities new technology offers us and aware of not just the technological but the demographic economic and fiscal challenges ahead, I want to set out how in the next few years we will accept our responsibilities for good government - and not walk away from our responsibilities; and how we will empower patients, parents, pupils and citizens in new ways with better more personal more interactive services that put them, the users, in charge.

So among the changes I want to emphasise in my remarks today - what I call the third generation of changes in our public services - is that our reforms in government will embed in the very fabric of our public services new personal and enforceable guarantees tailored to the individual needs of the citizen.

Full text is after the jump.

Let me first of all thank the Institute for Government and the Royal Society for hosting this event today.

Let me thank Sir Michael for those thoughtful opening words.

And let me thank the Institute for Government for all their work - in creating here in Britain a world-leading authority on shaping and developing more effective government, and developing it through international research and evidence-based advice that draws on best practice from across the world.

In the coming months, our country faces a profound choice.

Of course, there will be a general election when voters will choose which politicians they want to form the next government; but behind that choice lies an even more profound one, about the future of our country: two competing visions about managing our economy through and out of recession; two competing visions about a fair society; and two competing visions about the future of our health service, about excellence and opportunity in education and our public services. And over the last few months, two competing visions of how we govern ourselves have begun to emerge in response to the new challenges we all face.

So today inspired by the opportunities new technology offers us and aware of not just the technological but the demographic economic and fiscal challenges ahead, I want to set out how in the next few years we will accept our responsibilities for good government - and not walk away from our responsibilities; and how we will empower patients, parents, pupils and citizens in new ways with better more personal more interactive services that put them, the users, in charge.

So among the changes I want to emphasise in my remarks today - what I call the third generation of changes in our public services - is that our reforms in government will embed in the very fabric of our public services new personal and enforceable guarantees tailored to the individual needs of the citizen.

I will also set out how, as a result of the work of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, every citizen will from next year have access to all information on the performance of our public services showing how, and in great detail, hospitals schools and all our public services perform in your own neighbourhood - data put online during 2010 completing the process by 2011, but data there to encourage feedback and dialogue between professional and citizen.

And I can also state that as a result of the work of Martha Lane Fox, our aim is - within the next five years - to shift the great majority of our large transactional services to become online only.

And because of these changes, and others I will outline, I can also show how more resources will be switched from the back office to the front line. Wherever it will improve efficiency and value for money departments will be required to share services adopt common purchasing policies; use office space more effectively; reduce quangos and sell off assets we do not need.

This is our response to a fast changing world. An information revolution is giving people new powers over the choices they make for themselves and their families.

People have rising expectations and aspirations. They want a bigger say and greater accountability in the public sector with services that are universal but also personal and of the highest quality.

We expect to be able to get the information we need when we want it. We expect online access to see what our children are learning and how they are getting on. We expect to see our GP at time convenient to us.

We want new services that meet, for example, the growing needs of older people, supporting them at home - where they wish to remain whenever possible. And helping people in middle life who can find themselves struggling to balance work with meeting responsibilities towards their ageing parents and their young families.

Such profound changes must now be managed in the context of an unprecedented global recession, as governments confront the need to plan to unwind deficits necessitated by action to save the global banking system.

As the country emerges from recession, taxpayers want more than ever to see their contributions used in the same way they manage their own finances: by getting maximum value for money.

Before the recession, it looked as if a broad political consensus might be built around the future of public services. But that hope has now been disappointed. There is now a clear choice between two competing visions of how government should respond to these challenges as our opponents are now searching for a return to the older ways where the public sector can withdraw from the provision of essential public services, abandoning the responsibilities they bring. The question they must now answer is about the risk— indeed the gamble —they are taking with our security and wellbeing: what if their alternatives don’t work? What if government does nothing for our young people who are unemployed and we return to the bleakness of the 1980s lost generation? What if facing the challenges of Asia, young people are denied education and training to 18 and bereft of any skills become unemployable as a result? What if government radically cuts police numbers as happened before, walks away from using the best of DNA and CCTV and then crime rises again? What if Sure Start, Educational Maintenance Allowances, Family Intervention Programmes are abandoned and desperate families left reliant on the uncertainties of philanthropy?

And what if by abandoning the personal guarantee to every cancer patient, worried patients have to wait months before seeing a specialist? What if by giving up on the guarantee of GPs accessible at weekends and evenings - we drift towards a two-tier health service, with better care only for those who can afford to pay for it? What if your son or daughter needs special tuition that is currently free and it is no longer there and the only way to get tuition for your child is to pay for it?

When public services are failing, or simply not there, it easy for those who have enough wealth to survive - but not very easy for all of the rest of us.

For this government, walking away from its proper role is not an option. No-one will ever need to ask of us the question ‘what if’.

For me the question is ‘how?’ how we make sure we’re there to help people and better still- help people in the way they want? How to do so in ways that are cost effective and make use of the most modern cost reducing technology to put people themselves in charge.

So while I have always said that there is such a thing as society and always said also that this is not the same thing as the state, I have also recognised that is only the beginning of the debate about how government and society should relate to each other.

To us the purpose of government has been to help people get on in their lives. Of course I recognise that when government tries to do too much, people can be rendered powerless. But I am know from my experience also that when government is indifferent and does too little, people are left helpless. And for me there is no need to jump to the conclusion that government is always to be defined as the problem and never the solution, that its best role is minimal and that it can encourage from the sidelines but do no more. That is not my view. I believe that government should never walk away from its responsibilities to the nation that elected them to govern on behalf of everyone, doing so fairly and equitably.

We are now entering the third generation of public services. The first generation ensured everyone could have access to essential services that up until then had been provided patchily and inadequately. But in previous decades successive governments skimped on the investment that our public services depend on, and became complacent about the quality of the services they provided to the public.

So in the second generation of public services which began in 1997 we transformed investment in our public services. What were once seen as ambitious goals are increasingly seen as the norm. Today there are over 42 thousand more teachers, more than a hundred new hospitals with over 89 thousand more nurses and 44 thousand more doctors, and 16 thousand more police officers on our streets. This investment - coupled with tough performance management - has driven a rapid increase in standards.

Today if you need to see a consultant as an out-patient your wait for treatment is on average just over 4 weeks. In 1997 it was over 13 weeks.

The next stage of public service reform will be characterised by a radical shift of power to the users of public services, all users, not just those who are wealthy and powerful, not just those who have the resources to make the best of what government offers them. Power will shift to everyone who needs to use our public services.

Our public services embody our deepest values of fairness and responsibility. They are the proud expression of the common endeavour of the British people over generations to secure for each other the foundations of a fair and decent society.

We live in an age of expanding opportunity in which rapid technological advances are changing our world at a speed and scale not witnessed since the industrial revolution. And this offers us a unique opportunity to give the public what they now demand: public services responsive to their needs and driven by them.

At the same time it provides us with the means to deliver these public services in a way that maintains and enhances their quality but brings down their cost. And this will be essential to help meet our commitment to halve the public deficit over four years.

In the recent recession, when banks we trusted collapsed and markets we relied upon failed, only government as the expression of the public interest could have protected people’s savings; sustained their jobs; helped keep them in their homes; and continued to provide the services they rely on.

But while I passionately believe in our responsibilities to ensure good government, I do not believe that protecting this principle means resisting reform. Quite the opposite.

That is why today I am setting out how I believe government must be changed for these new times.

The proposals we are setting out in this plan - which is just one element of our efforts to reduce the deficit - will go further than we have ever gone before in streamlining central government. We have already promised savings of £35 billion a year by 2011 on top of the £26.5 billion a year already delivered through the Gershon review. But by identifying new ways of working - and being prepared to make the tough choices - we can deliver in excess of another £12 billion in efficiency savings over the next four years. This includes £3 billion of new efficiency savings identified since the budget - of which over 1.3 billion will come from streamlining central government.

The first stage of our proposals is to let local areas set priorities and guide resources - it is because we now will insist on every citizen being given fundamental rights and entitlements to core aspects of public services that are at the centre of their lives, like their rights to treatment, or local policing for their family or tuition for their children, that we can simplify performance management from the centre, reduce the number of national indicators from next April, and make further reductions in 2011.

In the NHS, for example, there will be guarantees to see a cancer specialist within two weeks; to treatment within 18 weeks; regular check ups for everyone aged 40-74; and GP surgeries open in the evening and at weekends. And we are bringing forward radical plans for treating patients remotely at home; providing more convenience and comfort but also a cheaper alternative to a hospital or surgery visit - all without compromising standards of care.

In schools there will be guarantees of a personalised education - including 1:1 tuition - for pupils who are falling behind national standards in English and maths. And a guarantee for every school leaver of a college place or employment and training opportunity.

Crucially, we will put in place the mechanisms that will enable every user of public services to shape the provision of them. The days when the state would tell you what you were getting and you were supposed to be grateful are gone. That was first generation public services. And the period of laying the foundations on which modern public services could be built has been completed. That was second generation. In this third generation of public services, public services will be shaped and driven by users.

Information is the key. An informed citizen is a powerful citizen.

We will ensure that people can get access to the information they need to engage in dialogue with public service professionals; and in doing so reduce bureaucratic burdens. This will drive improvements in public services, making them more personal and cost-effective, whilst at the same time strengthening democratic deliberation and giving frontline workers and voluntary organisations the freedom to innovate and respond to new demands in new ways.

We are determined to be among the first governments in the world to open up public information in a way that is far more accessible to the general public.

So I am grateful to Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt for leading a project to ‘make public data public’.

This has enormous potential. Already more than 1,000 active users of the internet have registered their interest in working with government on this, and we have so far made around 1,100 datasets accessible to them.

And there are many hundreds more that can be opened up - not only from central government but also from local councils, the NHS, police and education authorities.

And these must all have the opportunity for feedback and interaction, for that is where power lies for the citizen.

This increased transparency and accountability will enable citizens to compare local services, lobby for improvements, choose providers and demand changes in service delivery - with the web as a powerful new tool for sharing customer experience - in the same way that social networking sites provoke debate and discussion and mobilise opinion. Judgement on public services will no longer be the preserve of anonymous government inspectors.

Already the NHS choices website enables patients to make decisions based on reviews and other ratings.

In education, we are committed to giving all parents of secondary school pupils guaranteed online access to what their child is learning and enabling them to monitor their progress whenever is convenient for them. We will encourage schools to use text messaging to provide up-to-date information on truancy, out of school clubs and unplanned school closures.

Through the new online crime maps which went live last month - allowing for the first time everyone in the country to search by postcode for facts about crime in their area and what is being done about it - we are exploring how people can use police data on late-night incidents to help them choose the safest routes home and to post travel tips and security tip-offs for others.

And through our “tell us once” pilot, citizens no longer have to contact many different central and local government organisations with the same information. We will be rolling out that service nationally for births and deaths in 2010 and we are working with local authorities to pilot a similar tell us once service for change of addresses.

In this way people will no longer be passive recipients of services but, through dialogue and engagement, active participants - shaping, controlling and determining what is best for them.

And I can announce today that we will actively publish all public services performance data online during 2010 completing the process by 2011. Crime data, hospital costs and parts of the national pupil database will go on line in 2010. We will use this data to benchmark the best and the worst and drive better value for money.

It will have a direct effect on how we allocate resources. We will introduce next year NHS tariffs based on best practice on the ground not average price. And we will be benchmarking the whole of the prison and probation system by 2011.

And we will give our frontline services greater freedoms and flexibilities to respond innovatively to this data, reducing the number of ring fenced budgets, rationalising different central funding projects and joining-up capital funding within a local area.

Releasing data can and must unleash the innovation and entrepreneurship at which Britain excels - one of the most powerful forces of change we can harness.

When, for example, figures on London’s most dangerous roads for cyclists were published, an online map detailing where accidents happened was produced almost immediately to help cyclists avoid blackspots and reduce the numbers injured.

And after data on dentists went live, an iphone application was created to show people where the nearest surgery was to their current location.

And from April next year ordnance survey will open up information about administrative boundaries, postcode areas and mid-scale mapping.

All of this will be available for free commercial re-use, enabling people for the first time to take the material and easily turn it into applications, like fix my street or the postcode paper.

And I can further announce today that, again from next April, we will also release public transport data hitherto inaccessible or expensive and release significant underlying data for weather forecasts for free download and re-use.

Civic society will have a crucial role to play in this third generation of public services as social enterprises and mutual not-for-profit providers so often ensure that public services meet people’s needs, especially those of hard to reach communities.

Early intervention aimed at prevention helps families in crisis more effectively and is less costly in the long run. So we will pilot a new way of funding the third sector to provide such services. What we call social impact bonds - money paid out now to deal at root with the causes not the symptoms of a problem - will reward social investors for work which reduces future social costs, for example, in seeking to lower the reoffending rate of those coming out of prison.

Effective government action helping, for example millions of carers, does not crowd out social responsibility. It helps to enrich and strengthen it especially in the most hard-pressed communities.

But in order to achieve our ambitions for this third generation of public services we must ensure that no one in Britain is left behind in this communications revolution.

So we will ensure that everyone can use all the facilities that will be available.

Through our programme for Digital Britain - high speed broadband will be extended to every home so that we can create genuinely interactive services. There are now 6,000 public places with internet access in England, including every library - where there are more than 30,000 terminals - many community and adult education centres; and even some pubs. And today I can announce that we will invest a further £30 million with UK Online, championed by Martha Lane Fox’s digital inclusion taskforce, to get at least another 1 million people online by 2012.

And this should help secure even better value for money. Evidence from local authorities indicates that on average carrying out a telephone transaction online can save £3.30 and doing a paper and mail transaction online can save £12 each time.

What’s more: using text messages to remind people of GP appointments can help save on the £600 million annual cost to the NHS of missed appointments - that is the equivalent of 24 new secondary schools, or over 13 thousand nurses.

Switching transactions to online channels also frees up staff to provide personal support and advice. For example, since the online benefit adviser service was launched in April last year, it has saved an estimated 690 thousand calls.

So during the next year we will set out service by service how transactions with government will move online as rapidly as possible, starting with student loans, jobseekers allowance, working tax credits and then child benefit. In 2011 we will move to exclusive online vat returns and employer tax returns.

Our aim is - within the next five years - to shift the great majority of our large transactional services to become online only - and this has the potential to save as a first step 400 million pounds but as transaction after transaction goes on line billions more.

I want to thank Martha Lane Fox and her team for their invaluable and innovative work in this area.

But if the purpose of our reforms is not only to be more efficient, but to meet future challenges and re-engineer our public services from good to great, Whitehall has to let go - and empower staff and the public to shape provision in meeting local needs and priorities.

Doing this, leads logically to the inevitable and desirable need for a slimmer, more streamlined centre of government.

So our plans will mean some of the most sweeping changes in administration in this country in half a century.

In line with the way people carefully and wisely manage their household budgets, every penny spent by Whitehall must count.

And this prudence will start at the top.

That is why I can announce today that the senior civil service pay bill will be cut by up to 20 per cent over the next three years to release savings of £100 million a year.

Let me put that in some context: for £100 million you could have four new secondary schools or 10 new GP-run health centres - every year.

Or that £100 million could pay the salaries of 3,200 nurses or 2,200 teachers for a year.

Of course, public service is admirable and important and it deserves fair reward, but we must never forget that our priority is excellence at the frontline.

In the wider public sector, some senior pay and perks packages have lost sight of this goal and lost touch with the reality of people’s lives.

Money which should be spent on health, on schools, on policing, and on social services is in some cases going on excessive salaries and unjustified bonuses far beyond the expectations of the majority of workers.

This culture of excess must change and will change.

It cannot be right that taxpayers fund 300 local authority officials who have salaries over £150,000, or that in total over 300 staff across public sector bodies are paid more than £200,000.

And when Britain is emerging from a global recession which has robbed families of their homes; workers of their jobs and businesses of their trade and turnover- and left others fearing the same - it is time to act.

So we will also put in place radical reforms to senior pay across the wider public sector, including tougher scrutiny for senior appointments, and comprehensive transparency and accountability arrangements.

And I am asking Bill Cockburn, as chair of the senior salaries pay review body, to work with the chief secretary to review senior pay across the whole of the public sector, reporting to government in time for next year’s budget.

For future civil service appointments and other managerial appointments to public sector bodies which are subject to ministerial approval, the chief secretary to the treasury will approve in advance of recruitment all salaries over £150,000 and any bonus payments of over £50,000.

And where senior managerial appointments are not directly under government control we will expect the organisations in question to justify publicly to the relevant Secretary of State any salaries or bonus payments at or above this level.

Those organisations found to be squandering public funds on over generous salaries for officials, at the expense of services for people, will be named and shamed.

To set a new culture of openness, for civil servants and other bodies under direct ministerial control, we will publish for the first time the numbers in each salary band above £50,000 and name all individuals earning more than £150,000.

And in the spirit of openness, accountability and responsibility I would expect others - including publicly-funded media, regulators and other public sector bodies - to do the same.

The revised civil service compensation scheme is expected to save up to half a billion pounds over three years and provide fairer outcomes through a combination of removing the expensive enhanced early retirement terms and cutting back on the redundancy payments made to higher-paid staff. We are also clamping down on the unacceptable practice whereby people leave with a payoff and then return to work.

But these efficiencies must go wider than pay and compensation levels.

No longer can we tolerate unnecessary inefficiency or duplication in administration when so many people are working so hard to deliver effectively on the ground.

At the time of the Budget, we said that £4 billion could be shaved from the 2007-08 spend of around £18 billion on operations such as human resources and finance.

We are implementing widespread benchmarking to bring the standards of the rest up to that of the best.

And we have conducted targeted performance reviews across the public sector to drive out inefficiencies.

So resources will be switched from the back office to the front line.

Departments will share services and common purchasing policies; office space will be condensed and we will shortly publish our portfolio setting out for sale those assets that government does not need to own.

And I can also announce today that those departments or other bodies which fail to raise their standards sufficiently will face outside scrutiny, and where necessary intervention from troubleshooters, to bring them up to the standards of the best.

I will assume Chairmanship of the Cabinet Sub-Committee on value for money and efficiency which will meet regularly to hold ministers to account.

At the same time there will be no hiding place for Ministers or civil servants who fail to drive increasing efficiencies from their departments. We will link more explicitly than ever before the performance of departments to rewards.

And I am announcing today that Whitehall spending on consultancy will be halved and on marketing reduced by a quarter - in total, an annual saving of £650 million.

We will also merge or abolish 123 government arms length bodies with the remainder subjected to greater oversight with a view to save a further £500 million a year.

And we will go further with relocating staff outside London and the south east.

Five years ago the Lyons review successfully relocated 20,000 civil servants and this year’s budget increased that figure by 4,000.

And there are opportunities to review the working practices of the remaining 132,000 staff still based in higher cost areas of London and the south east with a view to moving 10 per cent to cheaper locations.

The programme of reform we are publishing today will help secure necessary efficiencies but also build on the first rate public services we have today and protect them for generations to come.

But the case for reforming how government works goes further than responding to the changing realities of today’s world, vital though that is.

It also reflects our enduring belief in equality of opportunity and a more just society in which we give people the tools to shape their own lives, as well as protecting them from risks they cannot handle alone - for example, the global financial crisis and climate change.

I am afraid that in the DNA of those who believe that government is always the obstacle the conclusion appears to be: remove the obstacles for the powerful and successful to keep doing well and the rest of society will be able to take care of itself, in my DNA is the belief that the good society is a fair society; that government is best seen as what we choose to do together and that government can be a force for good and fairness.

It was the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen who championed the importance of capabilities: the capacity of people through skills, education and a decent income to shape their own destiny.

Our purpose therefore must be to ensure that people have the capabilities they need to lead a freely chosen life.

This needs us all to think radically, to think with ambition and to think with purpose: to reconstruct government to meet the needs of a society and an economy in flux.

In short, people don’t want a government that tells them what to do; but nor do they want one that leaves them isolated.

So having restored the value of the relationship between people and government, our vision is simple: every corner of government and every institution of our public life must now become both responsible and responsive to the British people in a new partnership for these new times.