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The Whitehall monster would kill any data revolution

3 July 2012

4:00 PM

3 July 2012

4:00 PM

Could the government save £33 billion a year through better use of data? That’s the claim of a new report from Policy Exchange, which highlights how the government has failed to modernise and make efficient use of huge amounts data sitting at its disposal. Although playing with information isn’t exactly glamorous government, the inefficiency highlighted by this report makes its own case. The report’s author Chris Yiu argues:

‘Across the public sector, extraordinary quantities of data are amassed in the course of running public services – from managing welfare payments and the NHS, through to issuing passports and driving licences. Finding ways to share or link this data together has the potential to save time for citizens and money for taxpayers.’


The headline figures are potential savings of up to £22 billion from better adoption of data to improve day to day work of the public sector, up to £8bn income in unpaid taxes and up to £3bn from catching fraudulent benefit claims.  There are also more technically challenging and radical suggestions — such as directing staff to airports in real time through analysis of queues and abolishing the ONS’ census and using existing data instead to estimate the population size and makeup.

Though these sound very logical and sensible, there is one large caveat. Government technology projects have historically been an unmitigated disaster, and there is no proof this has changed. Take the terrific black hole of the NHS Connecting for Health project — it cost the taxpayer £12bn and only resulted in an email system. Then there is Iain Duncan Smith’s real time Universal Credit system, due to go live as part of next year’s welfare reforms. Westminster is full of rumblings that this is the next IT disaster waiting to explode.

If the government can pull this off, then it would be foolish to overlook any of the suggestions in this report. But if Universal Credit is late, overpriced or simply doesn’t work, it will confirm the public sector has no chance of the successful data overhaul it so badly needs.


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