Every news report I read about public sector budgets lists IT as a target of cuts alongside other “administrative overheads”.

“Administrative overheads”? IT should be reducing bureaucracy, not adding to the problem. All of which makes me question whether some senior officials understand the opportunity IT provides to help manage budget cuts and improve public services.

I was asked recently what percentage of departmental budgets should go on IT. “Wrong question,” I said. It’s the same error many make when comparing themselves with analysts’ benchmarks. I often hear five per cent mentioned as the ‘right’ figure for IT expenditure. But at a tech-intensive organisation such as Visa Europe, IT represents about 35 per cent of expenditure.

As the private sector has demonstrated, the internet age enables us to re-imagine how organisations operate, delivering very different results. Policymakers now need to experience their own Internet Moments, by which I mean the acquisition of a deep understanding of citizens’ needs that leads to services being remodelled around them.

If our public services are properly redesigned in this way, the percentage of departmental budgets spent on IT might be closer to the Visa figure than to the analysts’ estimates. A higher percentage, yes, but an overall lower budgetary cost: successful IT will improve public services while reducing complexity and cost.

A new government IT strategy is under development that will hopefully articulate how IT can underpin this shift to services based on citizens’ needs. It should also help to identify the capabilities that government requires for this transition and the smartest way that such capabilities can be provided. Commodity shared services – such as networks, email, instant messaging, collaboration services and other facilities available from the cloud – already exist, but now need to be adopted by the public sector.

By making a transition based on these principles the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead estimates it can deliver savings of around 30 per cent over four years. They also anticipate that services to residents will be improved by the innovation, transparency and effectiveness that such changes allow.

All of which suggests that the era of cuts need not be about reducing activities but about making improvements in how our public services are designed and operated.

About the author

Jerry Fishenden is a director of the Centre for Technology Policy Research