Dismantling the National Programme for IT (NPfIT)

Government moves to a single point of delivery of its ‘digital by default’ public services (see previous blog post) will not be followed by the NHS. After nearly a decade, the National Programme for IT has failed in plans to provide NHS patients with an individual electronic care record transferable across the UK. In a step which is either backwards or forwards, it’s difficult to tell, local hospital trusts will be able to choose their own systems. Either way, it’s back to square one. A good moment to re-publicise the System Error  report, crucial reading for anyone interested and concerned with government plans for Universal Credit due to rolled out online next year.

Also worth reading is the recent report by Ellen J Helsper (London School of Economics and Political Science) called The Emergence of a Digital Underclass: Digital Policies in the UK and Evidence for Inclusion. Highlighting links between social exclusion and the potential for digital exclusion, a key message is ‘Those who need access to services most, from where the biggest cost savings through the digitisation of services are supposed to come, are the least likely to take these up even when access is available.’  Focusing on quality of access, the report raises issues around literacy, skills and motivation. As if that weren’t enough reasons for exclusion, it fails to mention users of assistive technologies who face additional barriers of cost, support and exclusive design. But the message is clear. The move to digital by default services will inevitably damage the welfare of those who need support the most.

Revolution not evolution; government moves towards a ‘digital by default’ welfare state

The proposed model for ‘digital by default’ services has been described as revolution rather than evolution. (Directgov 2010 and Beyond: Revolution Not Evolution) Driven by the search for efficiency savings, the proposal is to merge disparate government services into a single point of delivery at the Direct.gov.uk website with all content being produced by a single government department. 

“…we believe its time to move onto a new phase of convergence, by rationalizing and converging all departmental websites and their content…onto shared web services, supported by a set of common web standards.” Directgov Strategic Review (2010: 2)

This reinvention of the government online publishing system is estimated to significantly reduce their web expenditure. Presumably in order to afford the cost of the new system being set up to support the application, award and management of Universal Credit next year. This in spite of the recent System Error  report from the Institute for Government Think Tank which documents “too many high-profile and costly failures” (2011: 2) and where “Most attempts to solve the problems with government IT have treated the symptoms rather than resolved the underlying system-wide problems. This has simply led to doing the wrong things ‘better’”. (ibid p9). 

On the surface, the language of single site delivery is encouraging; documentation refers to functionality, quality, common content standards and building services around people’s needs. It is technically possible to design and deliver content in a way which allows people to choose their preferred mode of access and these plans to achieve digital-only services by 2015 offer a real opportunity for bridging digital divides.

However, there is also the issue of conversion to ‘digital by default’ services. Called ‘channel shift’, this is a massive exercise in behaviour modification. Persuading people to move from face-to-face to digital ways of working is reminiscent of the arrival of virtual learning environments, and the adoption of digital pedagogies, over a decade ago. In 2011, not everyone across the sector can demonstrate confidence and competence with digital ways of working, and this raises questions about the reality of the government plans. While they are likely to achieve their ‘digital by default’ ambitions by 2015, it is unlikely they will have achieved a state of digital inclusion as well.