UK government takes a significant step toward digital services

This blog post was also featured as a column in the November 2015 issue of Legal Practice Management magazine. To read the issue in full, download LPM magazine.

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In 2010 the UK government took a significant step toward digital services with the publication of its digital by default (DbD) strategy. The strategy aimed to make every new or updated government agency or process “digital by default” by 2020. That’s no small beer considering that in 2012 1.7 billion transactions were handled by government agencies. The strategy is to push labour-intensive tasks such as paper form submissions onto digital platforms. This should improve customer service while delivering significant savings to the civil purse. 

This all sounds fine in theory, but the strategy has had an unintended consequence for businesses that is only now becoming evident.

The government’s strategy is designed to address the needs of the mass market, the individuals that number in the millions and submit data periodically. It doesn’t cover the needs of the volume user businesses that are smaller in number but handle thousands of transactions on a monthly basis. This strategy directly impacts every legal practice in the UK.

Rather than providing an efficient time and cost-saving solution, the DbD strategy actually introduces complexity for firms that, unless addressed, will not allow improved digital access to services such as Companies House.

It’s straightforward: despite centrally issued guidelines, each government agency continues to be allowed to individually implement their own portals. Fragmentation has meant that each agency is a distinct entity and not part of a unified government digital framework. For business users that means a different login for each portal, managing billing accounts separately and no management oversight or analysis of submissions. More importantly, these portals are live sites, and there’s no way to save progress on submissions. Any client collaboration, senior management approval or additional data gathering to help the submission is completely out of the question. This is an unnecessarily complicated digital strategy, but one borne of convenience for central government and a desire to deliver to an aggressive 2020 timeline.

Unsurprisingly, uptake for business has been mixed. The government still allows paper form submissions, a safe and familiar path for law firms who are not keen on unnecessary process change. However, rejection rates and submission costs are much higher than the digital equivalent and flies in the face of the digital law firm ethos promoted by many industry experts. On the other hand, those that have started to use digital submissions have quickly found the government’s own offerings fall short of the demands and needs of business. Anyone submitting a number of forms a month will quickly lose sight of progress and have no ability to save drafts, re-assign work to team members or accurately track their costs.

At the moment this is a relatively small issue – only a few dozen portals are DbD live but that’s rapidly changing and will continue to gain momentum in the next few years. The legal profession, therefore, needs a solution to stop it from being hindered by the digital inefficiencies of central government, but at the same time benefit from the real advantages that digitally submitting data can bring.

A user-friendly, consistent online platform which allows firms to complete all their digital submissions, irrespective of which government portal they relate to, is a must. Firms cannot succeed by employing multiple ‘point solutions’ that only address the requirements of a single government agency at a time. The only way law firms can realise the benefits of digital by default is through a single, unified submission platform that removes the headache of fragmentation and offers the management information and business wide focus that law firms really need.

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