Comment

We have the technology

In this age of austerity, technology providers need to step up and demonstrate real savings for the public sector or face a diminishing IT budget, argues Scott Wickware
  • Guardian Professional,
  • Jump to comments ()
Scott Wickware Scott Wickware

In the midst of the biggest reduction in government expenditure since the second world war it feels like every aspect of the public sector could be affected.

Talk of cuts and tax rises have dominated the news agenda. There's been extensive speculation about the threat to frontline services. But is this is helpful discourse or are we missing a trick?

We have an opportunity to cast the debate wider and address the avoidable waste which has accumulated over the years in the public sector.

Sir Philip Green's report into government spending paints a bleak picture of public sector waste. Green is reported as saying that if he ran his business in a similar fashion 'the lights would go out' and by addressing inefficiencies, it's possible to make savings 'without a single person losing their job'.

Knee-jerk response

While Green wasn't necessarily saying that the government shouldn't make job cuts, the statement does imply that by taking a short term, knee-jerk response to a crisis, like the budget deficit, other routes to meeting fiscal targets can go overlooked.

For instance, one option open to us is to harness technology to automate everyday processes and cut back inefficiencies. In so doing, we can redeploy staff to carry out more useful functions, while delivering a better experience for the public and providing compelling financial benefits to the public sector.

A report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research has found that the public sector could save £13bn a year by automating more customer service calls.

This sum of money is equivalent to the cost of building more than 50 new super hospitals or around 400 city academies. These are potential cost savings which we simply cannot ignore. The public sector owes it to itself and its citizens to investigate new cost cutting options.

And yet despite technology's massive savings potential, there's been concern in the industry that IT budgets will feel the cuts the most.

Investments

Unsurprisingly perhaps given that negative perceptions of major public sector IT programmes in the past have led to an understandable scepticism of the real value of these technology initiatives. If technology investments cannot deliver efficiency gains and a rapid return on investment, they should come under closer scrutiny.

However, deployment of the right technology for the right task, implemented effectively, can genuinely deliver value and improve long term efficiency.

Fortunately the appetite for using technology for recovery is evident. According to the comprehensive spending review, target efficiency savings of 25% for HMRC will be made through "enhanced use of new technology". Meanwhile, the Home Office will be using technology to make savings in real terms of 23% by 2014-15 and the government plans to introduce "better technology" for police forces.

However, there is often a chasm between spotting the cost saving opportunities through technology and actually implementing the technology, which can stymie the best of intentions. The onus is on the technology providers to clearly demonstrate their role in alleviating some of the pain and implementing savings without, or at least with, reduced cuts.

Without a doubt innovative technology can help reduce expenditure while improving frontline services. But to realise its full potential we need to redefine the argument. We shouldn't be asking what the spending review will do to IT budgets but what technology can do for the review.

Scott Wickware is vice president of market development, EMEA, at Nuance Communications

Public leaders jobs

Today in pictures