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How remaking government for the digital age could save £70bn

By leveraging technology, data and the internet, a digital government really could do more with less.

A digital government really could do more with less.
David Cameron sits beside Sally Russell, co-founder of Mumsnet, as he visits the parenting website's offices, at CP House February 14, 2012 in Watford. Photograph: Getty Images.

Try – just for a moment – to imagine your life without the internet. No web browser, no email, no smartphone. No online shopping. No TV on demand. No Skype, no Facebook and no Twitter. Definitely no Angry Birds, Words with Friends or WhatsApp. For most of us it's hard. If you're under 35, chances are it's pretty much impossible.

There is, of course, one place where you don't have to imagine what the world would be like if the internet had never been invented: government.

Ok, that's a little unfair. Whatever you think of the coalition, there's no denying that they have made real progress changing the way government approaches ICT. And against all the odds, GOV.UK, the new single website for government, not only landed on time and on budget, but also went on to win the coveted 2013 Design of the Year award.

So government is changing. But the world around it is changing faster. The digital revolution has already altered our lives in more ways than we could ever have imagined – and with ubiquitous superfast connectivity, 3D printers and the internet of things on the horizon, the pace of change will only accelerate. Along the way, industry after industry has been turned on its head by the internet and the things digital technology makes possible.

The potential for revolution in the business of government is real. If Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple or any one of their competitors were redesigning the way government works, do you think you'd still be wading through paper forms to get your passport renewed? Or hanging on the phone for hours trying to book a hospital appointment? Or sticking a paper tax disc in your windscreen?

Just matching the user experience we have come to expect as digital consumers, and finally putting us in control of our relationship with the state, would be enough on its own to justify digitising government. But behind the scenes even more is possible. By leveraging technology, data and the internet, a digital government really could do more with less. Routine tasks could be done faster and with fewer mistakes. Independent developers could unleash an explosion of apps and services designed to interact with government systems. High performance analytics could drive smarter decisions about when and how government chooses to act. Cumulative savings of up to £70bn by 2020 are not beyond the realm of possibility.

Just one hurdle stands in the way, and it's neither hardware nor software. Technology is both the context and the enabler for radically better government, but it is how we choose to embrace it that will make the difference between success and failure. This is particularly true for senior people in government: if an organisation's leaders aren't willing or able to change then there's little hope. If we are serious about transforming government, then the people working in government must explore radical, digital approaches to everything they do. Exposing more senior officials to outside organisations that live and breathe digital innovation, and replacing general role descriptions with specific, measurable and time-limited objectives for digital transformation would be a good start.

Today we think nothing of being able to access all of the information in the world, in an instant, just by picking up a smartphone. Change happens fast. Ten years ago, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr, Dropbox and Instagram didn't exist. Twenty years ago Google didn't exist, and there were only a few hundred websites in the entire world. Thirty years ago, there was no internet.

The digital revolution is coming, and government is running out of places to hide.

Chris Yiu is Head of the Digital Government Unit at the think tank Policy Exchange, and author of Smaller, Better, Faster, Stronger: Remaking government for the digital age.

Follow him on Twitter: @PXDigitalGov