Headlines: May 24th, 1999

The Cabinet Office denied the prediction of massive job losses across public service made by David Romley in Publicnet on 19 May. In the article
http://www.publicnet.co.uk/publicnet/fe990519.htm he described the downsizing that would result from the Government embracing e-commerce as a major part of the modernisation programme.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “There will be no major job losses. Modernising government is not about cutting jobs, its about better services. More staff will be needed to give better services, for example to provide extended opening of call centres.”

The spokesperson also denied the claim that the introduction of e-commerce into public services would bring a bonanza for the private sector. “The Channels Paper explains that the Government is embarking on a public, private and voluntary sector partnership to give joined up service deliver. It looks at how citizens can access government services, not who carries out the function. The Government is at the end of the chain of all transactions and remains accountable.”

The Publicnet article was based on policy papers published by the Central IT Unit, which is part of the Cabinet Office. The papers describe how the interface between public services and citizens and businesses will change fundamentally. They present a vision of commercial and voluntary sector providers combining their own services and products with those of other providers and with public services. The result is a ‘wall to wall’ customer service. The services will be provided through a network of channels. All approved channels will carry an official logo to give confidence to users.

A ‘wall to wall’ service could be provided through a ‘Tax’ channel. The provider would deliver an electronic tax return form to the Inland Revenue, using a third party provider to supply an authentication service. The benefit to the Inland Revue would be that they would receive a fully completed tax return without any inconsistencies attributable to a form completion error. The Inland Revenue may pay a fee to the provider for each return or the provider may incorporate some other service in the channel to fund the operation.

A test bed for the Channel policy will be launched in November with a Single Gateway pilot scheme. This is a one stop benefits service and private sector companies and voluntary organisations are being invited to tender for two of the four pilots.

The Channel policy is being carried forward by Ian White, newly recruited from IT company Oracle, to head a group in the Central IT Unit.

A former senior civil servant said: “The Channel Policy paper is probably one of the most significant documents about public services ever to emerge from Whitehall. The impact will be much greater than the 1988 Cabinet Office Report that launched the Next Steps Executive Agencies. Its scope is wider because it includes the health service and local government as well as central government. It signals a sea change in thinking about the public – private sector boundary and the way in which people interact with public bodies. Competitive tendering blurred the boundary between the sectors, but the Channel concept will bring complete removal and create a host of issues about accountability.

The other major impact is on the public contact process. Most public sector strategies are based on the presumption of direct contact with officials. The presumption now must be that contact may be through a third party supplier. This fundamental shift means that top managers need urgently to re-visit their strategies to see how they are affected by the Channel policy. Operations directors need to consider re-engineering their processes. Finance directors need to review planned expenditure. Personnel directors need to have contingency pans for early retirement, redundancy and accommodation disposal. IT directors need to consider the flexibility of systems to adapt to changes that will come.”

Please send views on how the Channel policy may impact on your part of the public sector to editor@publicnet.co.uk