To deliver better public services, we must ask what productivity in the public sector looks like, says Treasury Minister

Posted On: 
2nd October 2019

Speaking at the Institute for Government panel, sponsored by the Association for Project Management at Conservative Party Conference, Jesse Norman MP, Financial Secretary to the Treasury said that “Government can manage, if it’s properly structured and phased, well run IT projects and automation projects for the public good."

"We don’t want teachers to have classrooms with 75 kids in them because they won’t get the attention that they need. So, the question of what productivity is in public services lies deeply behind some of this,” said Jesse Norman MP.
Credit: 
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After years of spending constraints, public services are “back with a bang”, according to Gavin Freeguard, Programme Director at the Institute for Government.

"With more money going into them,” Mr Freeguard asked, “can future technologies and automation help to deliver better public services?”

Responding to this question, at the Institute for Government panel, sponsored by the Association for Project Management at Conservative Party Conference, Jesse Norman MP, Financial Secretary to the Treasury said that “Government can manage, if it’s properly structured and phased, well run IT projects and automation projects for the public good.

“The question is how do we make it do more of that and much better and lower cost in doing it.”

The MP added that “services get progressively more expensive than manufacturing.”

“It is a phenomenon that raises more profound question: ‘What do we mean when we mean productivity in public services?’

“We don’t want nurses to be dealing with 50 patients a day, because actually the likelihood is that they won’t get the care and attention and specific concern that you might want. We don’t want teachers to have classrooms with 75 kids in them because they won’t get the attention that they need.”

"So, the question of what productivity is in public services lies deeply behind some of this.”

Dr Gemma Tetlow, Chief Economist, Institute for Government, said that “new technology has the potential to improve public services” and has the “potential to make them more flexible and adaptable to the users needs, and the potential for more for less”.

“We are now moving into a new phase of public spending where more money is being made available for public services.

“With ageing population increasing demands to spend more on health and social care to deliver services people are used to at the moment.”

She stated that there was a “need for many social areas to do things a bit differently to get the most of the resources” and a need to get the “transformation right” and use new technology efficiently.

Dr Tetlow stated that the public sector has “huge legacy systems and a huge amount of data that needs to be transferred over to new systems,” whilst continuing to run many complex services.

She spoke of how the over the last five years, most areas of public services have seen “tight spending settlements”. This, she said, had created an environment that has been both “positive and negative for thinking how transforming how public services are delivered”.

And she added there was a big incentive “to do things differently” but that negative side is that these projects often require up-front investment “to deliver savings later on”.

Dr Tetlow praised the digitisation of the court system as an example of success across this period, but warned that there were clearly areas such as the NHS IT system and the

Universal Credit roll-out where we have seen less change.

Meanwhile, Jesse Norman MP described as we move into second quarter of the 21st century, it is likely to be dominated by issues of AI, big data, automation and robotics.

He stated that we need to “think much more deeply across government about how we handle those challenges”.

Dr Tetlow warned that it was “easy get carried away as thinking of new technology as robotics and AI, with some public services we are talking about basic, simple IT”.

David Thomson, Head of External Affairs at the Association of Project Management said that we need to have a “smart approach to technology”.

“We have a whole approach to start from what you want to achieve, what is the societal benefit”.

“We need to think about what the benefits are, think about health spending, using technology for preventative health – that’s a real challenge”.

Mr Thomson also stressed the importance of thinking through long term investment: “splurges of infrastructure investment can go badly wrong.”

He spoke of the importance of investing a “whole new set of skills to deliver rather than just develop policy”

“Data analytics with be really powerful tools for those in the public sector”, he continued.

He stated that access to technology was also incredibly important, for example, technology for older people, rural communities and for those who are not technically adept: “How do you make sure everyone shares the benefit of digital?”

Chris Cook, Editor of Tortoise Media stated that “we are going to need to make things work on current budgets” and mentioned the need for “gentle reforms”.

“We can’t push things faster than they will go.”