There is bunting hanging over the desks at which twentysomething geeks wearing jeans and hoodies tap away on Apple Macs. A giant stuffed penguin stands next to sofas where staff are encouraged to read poetry. The walls are dominated by whiteboards covered in Post-it Notes — “vertical campfires” where people exchange ideas.
The government digital service (GDS) in Holborn — half way between Westminster and the Silicon Roundabout hub of hi-tech businesses in east London — is the most extraordinary outpost of Whitehall. Sir Humphrey would have a fit: nobody here would be seen dead in a pinstriped suit. But this is the future of the civil service, with the potential to transform citizens’ relationship with the state while paying down the deficit.
“It’s about saving money but also convenience,” says one insider. “You can make bank transfers in the middle of the night from your mobile phone and order your Ocado shopping in your pyjamas, so you shouldn’t have to go down to the post office when you’re dealing with the state.”
The plan is for all government services to be available online; so far 25 of the most popular are in the process of going digital. It is already possible to renew your car tax, register to vote, make a lasting power of attorney and apply for student finance from your computer, tablet or smartphone. This is one area where Britain is leading the world. In Washington the Obama administration has set up its own US digital service, based explicitly on the GDS, right down to the Keep Calm and Carry On-style posters on the walls of the Holborn HQ. A new form of e-diplomacy is spreading, with New Zealand also using the UK’s source code for its government websites.
Now the geeks are embarking on the next stage of their virtual revolution. The GDS has designed an identification system that from next month will allow people to prove to the state, securely, who they are. That means it will soon be possible to order a new passport or driving licence, pay tax or apply for benefits without seeing any official, sending off documents or signing a piece of paper.
Under the “Verify” scheme, individuals will be able to choose one of five private providers to complete an online security check. This will give them a unique username, password and generate a code sent to their mobile phone — a “digital passport” that will give them access to government services. Before long, this secure identity could also be used in the private sector to log into a bank account, register with an airline or shop online. In due course, if the NHS is brought into the system, it could allow people to read their medical records or order repeat prescriptions online.
Although critics will argue that this is an ID card by the back door, those working on the scheme are confident that civil liberty concerns can be allayed by the fact that everybody will be able to choose which provider they want to verify their identity. “There will be no single database held by the government,” says one aide.
With the total cost of fraud reaching around £20 billion a year — up to half of it caused by identity theft — the potential savings are enormous. Already ministers estimate that £1.7 billion a year will be saved for the next five years by putting digital services online. The average cost of a digital transaction is almost 20 times lower than the cost of its telephone equivalent, about 30 times lower than the cost of sending it by post and about 50 times lower than a face-to-face meeting.
Once people are able to verify their identity online, it will be much easier to expand the number of services that are offered digitally. “This is huge,” says one senior figure. “Verify is the key to making the savings we need in the next parliament.”
It also turns the state’s relationship with the citizen on its head. Instead of government being something done to people from on high, it becomes a service accessed by consumers when and where they want. In a recent speech to the Institute for Government Mike Bracken, head of the GDS, argued that the “internet has changed everything” and it would be a “catastrophe” if Whitehall failed to keep up.
“In a digital age, traditional policy-making is largely broken,” he said. “It is slow, inflexible, unnecessarily complicated, afraid of technology and afraid of change.” Complexity in his view is “fetishised” by mandarins who are more interested in giving ministers multiple options than in improving services on the ground. Instead, he insisted that in future “users, not policy, should be the organising principle of a reformed civil service”.
This is about the way in which politics works, too. At the GDS the mantra displayed on posters around the room is “the strategy is the delivery”. Mr Bracken describes his guiding principle as “show not tell” — he prefers to start small and build up capability as they go along. By contrast, in other parts of Whitehall the priority, as an election nears, seems to be ramping up the rhetoric and ignoring the reality.
No 10 looks increasingly desperate as it tries to deal with the Ukip threat by making undeliverable pledges on immigration, while floating policies that will be impossible to implement, such as seizing the passports of returning jihadists.
The prime minister has announced massive unfunded future tax cuts and the chancellor has promised that a high-speed rail link in the north, HS3, will soon join the as-yet-unbuilt HS2 line — it’s jam tomorrow and honey the day after that.
Meanwhile, the child abuse inquiry, which has already lost two chairwomen, is so broad and wide-ranging that it is hard to see how it can possibly fulfil the public expectations of it any time soon. No wonder people are losing trust in their politicians as they see them making ever more grandiose promises in an attempt to secure their own positions.
Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister who is responsible for the government digital service, describes its approach as the “JFDI school of government” — “just f***ing do it”. If only Downing Street and the rest of Whitehall had the same approach.