Technology can improve public services but it must not be a 'codeword for austerity', warns shadow cabinet office minister
Technology can bring massive improvements to public services as long as it is not used as a "codeword for austerity", shadow cabinet office minister Jo Platt has warned.
Speaking at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton, the Labour MP urged ministers to avoid putting vulnerable people at risk by using advances in tech as a "narrative" for making savings in the delivery of public services.
Speaking at an Institute for Government panel, sponsored by the Association for Project Management, Ms Platt said it was crucial that governments looked to technology as an opportunity for improving services for the public, rather than using them as a means to drive down costs.
"Technology should not be a codeword for austerity or savings at the cost of performance, that is clear," she said.
"Short term efficiency savings may come at the cost of a longer-term problem that may take more time, money and distress to clean up.
"Take Universal Credit, it is clear that the Tories have been using the narrative of efficiency and technological innovation to mask the millions they have been taking out of the welfare system."
She added: "The risk of new technology is not only that it is notorious for breaking down, but it fails attempts to shrink government services at the cost of the least well off.
"Universal Credit has shown how they have implemented the savings element without getting the technology right, and that is probably why we have seen such misery."
The Leigh MP also highlighted the risks of overestimating the public's "digital savvy" when pushing for a tech-focused public service delivery system, warning that low internet penetration among older people risked taking away services from the most vulnerable in society.
But she said the role of tech could be massively beneficial in delivering efficient services if departments are able to "build trust" in their plans.
"We need to simplify the interactions between individuals and government while building trust in our systems," she said. "There is the possibility of using technology to combat the siloed approach across government, getting departmental crossovers communicating.
"If we are going to integrate our services out there then we need to get our technology right in Whitehall.
"We must embrace technology and ensure that it is benefitting the many, and being used to improve government services, and not just mask cuts."
Meanwhile, Stephen Rooney, Policy Manager at the Association for Project Management, said advancement in technology had the prospect of "leveraging" benefits for project managers in charge of delivering public service systems.
"The technological revolution will drive the evolution of the project profession in years to come, so as well as looking at the fourth industrial revolution, we are looking at what the Project Manager 4.0 will look like," he said.
"Combined, they will allow humans to do things that were unimaginable previously, they will lead to enormous innovation both in commercial products and services... and in public services."
But Mr Rooney was keen to highlight the importance of human project managers in delivering new digital service programmes, saying that although many of the building blocks of project management will become automated, the human role of Project Managers is "not going away any time soon."
"In many cases, tech promises to replace human labour and that is a source of anxiety for some sectors. And as it advances, we will be able to automate increasingly sophisticated tasks," he added.
"For the project profession, digital change is incredibly important, especially as project managers deliver transformation and change, and in actual fact, programmes of digital transformation work to address the threats of digital disruption...
"Whatever the excitement generated by new tech, we have got to remember that digital does not happen in a vacuum.
"Successful implementation means interaction with people.
"We have all had experiences when the chatbot isn't working and we need to pick up the phone. And it is nice to actually speak to another human."
The difficulty of delivery government projects was touched on by IfG chief economist, Dr Gemma Tetlow, who highlighted the importance of project managers in handling complex programmes.
"In many ways it is much harder for governments to adopt new technology than it is for large parts of the private sector," she said.
"The government has a lot of legacy systems, a huge amount of data that is held in old systems, that needs to be retained, and government needs to keep all of these services running while it tries to adopt any new ways of working.
"And that really is a huge challenge for them, and perhaps why it has been hard for them to make progress so far."
Dr Tetlow added: "Past failures obviously make service leaders nervous of trying to adopt change.
"You get a lot of flak if things go wrong, you don't necessarily get a huge amount of praise if things go well, so there is a real need to learn from what has worked and what hasn't gone wrong in the past.