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How the next government could rewire the state

The delivery of government services is fundamentally an information processing challenge.

Consider the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), which administers benefits for millions of UK citizens. To determine eligibility and process payments, the DWP needs numerous bits of personal information and documents from applicants, many of which were issued by other parts of the state.

This information processing can take up to six months and makes up the bulk of the DWP’s workload. An estimated 75% to 80% of the department’s 85,000 staff are directly involved in processing claims, at an annual cost to the taxpayer of approximately £3bn. In 2022, 13% of these claims turned out to be fraudulent, and across government, fraud and error costs between £29.3bn and £51.8bn per year.

These figures underscore the urgent need to fundamentally rethink the way that government provides, collects, and processes personal information.

Rewiring the web

When I worked at the Demos think-tank, I led the Rewiring the web project that explored how this could work in practice.

The approach we proposed would allow departments like the DWP to ask for the information they need from citizens in the form of standardised “requests”. These requests would be routed securely by the citizen’s device, with their consent, to the government department or company that held the necessary information. We call this a General Data Exchange Layer (GDEL).

Across government, the processing of everything from child benefits to asylum claims could be radically speeded up. Instead of waiting months for various departments to collect and check information manually, the necessary data could be gathered almost instantly.

For citizens, this would create a one-click experience with applications processed in minutes, not months. In the private sector, companies would be able request the information they need for things like credit checks, mortgage applications, and identity verification.   

Instead of combining this data in a national ID database, linked to a physical or digital ID as Tony Blair proposed in 2006, a general data exchange layer would simply route requests to the part of the state that holds this information. In most cases, personal information could then be substituted for more secure alternatives like pseudonymous identifiers that are only used in specific contexts, claims that confirm something about an individual, and tokens that represent something but can’t be stolen or reused.

The nature and number of connections that each person builds up in the course of their daily lives would then offer a far more reliable measure of their existence than any conventional form of identity. This would also remove the ability to enter false information and therefore significantly reduce the opportunity to commit fraud, which currently represents about 40% of all crime. 

So what would it take to realise this system?

Digital evolution

First, it’s important to remember how digital technologies have developed over the last 50 years.

As Chris Riley, director of the Data Transfer Initiative, puts it: “We’ve seen evolutions in our communications infrastructure a few times before. First, when the telephone network became infrastructure for the internet protocol stack; again when the internet protocol stack became infrastructure for the World Wide Web; and then again when the Web became infrastructure on which key ‘edge’ services like search and social media were built. Now, these edge services themselves are becoming infrastructure. And as a consequence, they will increasingly be regulated.”

When the first smartphones were launched, they initially operated at the “edge” as most people still used desktop PCs to access the internet. Fast forward to today and 92% of 16-to-64-year olds in the UK own a smartphone and there are 4.8 billion smartphone users worldwide.

Throughout history, when new technologies have become an integral part of our daily lives, we’ve recognised that the rules must change. In the 19th century, as the railway network developed, Parliament passed the 1830 Carriers Act, which classified train operators as common carriers and required them to transport customers without discrimination, regardless of social status or economic means.

If we apply the same logic to the movement of data, it’s reasonable to think that our devices should play a similar role, helping us move our information from one place to another without undue influence. This would create an open, interoperable system grounded in shared standards, regulatory protections, and user consent.

This is precisely the kind of “pro-competitive intervention” that the Digital Markets Unit, set up by the Competition and Markets Authority, will have the power to implement once the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill becomes law.

As governments look to regulate these companies, we should recognise the vital role they have to play. Ultimately, if the next government wants to significantly improve the delivery of public services, supporting the general exchange of data would be a good place to start.

Jon Nash is an associate director at Public First.

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