For some reason it failed to top the world’s news agenda, but yesterday the government announced a revolution in the way it interacts with citizens and businesses. The Cabinet Office published a strategy for Whitehall to go ‘digital by default’, meaning that Amazon-style online transactions will finally replace paper forms, face-to-face meetings and even telephone call centres in dealings with officialdom.
Solicitors struggling to renew their practising certificates online may not take that as unalloyed good news. However, in most walks of life non-digital channels are becoming the exception. Of the 82% of Britons who now use the web (frequently through smartphones), 86% shop online and 57% pay their bills online. Digital channels are mainstream and the legal world can no longer escape. The Ministry of Justice is one of seven departments, between them handling the majority of central government’s billion transactions a year, which the strategy says will lead the charge into digital by default.
Under the strategy the MoJ is supposed to come up with three ‘significant exemplar transformations’ to be implemented by 2015. One of these is likely to be the process of applying to the Office of the Public Guardian for lasting power of attorney. We can expect all other frequently used transactions to go online, unless there is a very good reason why not.
Digital government has been tried before, of course. The Labour administration set out in 2000 to ‘e-enable’ every single government process, from filing tax returns to applying for permission to conduct a burial at sea. It more or less met the target, but by setting up thousands of costly and cumbersome websites that few bothered to use. The new strategy is seeking to avoid past disasters, for example by insisting on off-the-shelf software rather than gold-plated custom designed systems. It reckons that the prize is savings of £1.8bn a year, and an easier life for citizens and businesses.
We should take that with a pinch of salt – the savings figure excludes the cost of installing new systems and relies on some gung-ho estimates about cutting headcount. There are also legislative and practical problems, not least that of individuals proving their identities online. But digital by default has clear political momentum – the notoriously paper-bound legal profession had better get used to it.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor
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