Passport delays could be slashed if govt embraces technology used by Amazon, Steve Barclay says


Delays to passport applications could be slashed if government embraces technology used by Amazon, Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay says

  • Tech used by big firms like Amazon could improve public service delivery
  • Examples include increased automation, machine learning and data analytics 
  • Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay said it could speed up passport delays
  • The same tech could justify govt plans to axe 91,000 public sector jobs
  • Labour hit back, saying Tories wanted to ‘gut the capabilities’ of the civil service’

The government should embrace technology used by firms such as Amazon to reduce passport waiting times, one of Boris Johnson‘s top advisers has urged.

Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay highlighted how increased automation, machine learning and data analytics pioneered by the tech giants could be used in the passport process.

Mr Barclay then suggested that the potential of such technology could justify the government’s plans to axe 91,000 civil service jobs and reduce the size of bloated public sector offices. 

Heather Wheeler, another Cabinet Office minister, said there had been a 24% increase in the civil service in recent years and labelled this ‘outrageous’. 

Hundreds of thousands of people have suffered delays with their passport applications, with the Government setting a 10-week target compared to three weeks in a normal year. 

The Government expects 9.5 million British passport applications to be dealt with in 2022, with Covid restrictions on travel resulting in just four million applications in 2020 and five million in 2021 by comparison. 

Cabinet Office Minister Steve Barclay has suggested that the potential of technology such as  automation, machine learning and data analysis could be used to justify the government's plans to axe 91,000 civil service jobs and reduce the size of bloated public sector offices

Cabinet Office Minister Steve Barclay has suggested that the potential of technology such as  automation, machine learning and data analysis could be used to justify the government’s plans to axe 91,000 civil service jobs and reduce the size of bloated public sector offices

Heather Wheeler, another Cabinet Office minister, said there had been a 24% increase in the civil service in recent years and labelled this 'outrageous'

Heather Wheeler, another Cabinet Office minister, said there had been a 24% increase in the civil service in recent years and labelled this ‘outrageous’

The Government expects 9.5 million British passport applications to be dealt with in 2022, with Covid restrictions on travel resulting in just four million applications in 2020 and five million in 2021 by comparison

The Government expects 9.5 million British passport applications to be dealt with in 2022, with Covid restrictions on travel resulting in just four million applications in 2020 and five million in 2021 by comparison

Hundreds of thousands of people have suffered delays with their passport applications, with the Government setting a 10-week target compared to three weeks in a normal year

Hundreds of thousands of people have suffered delays with their passport applications, with the Government setting a 10-week target compared to three weeks in a normal year

But Labour hit back against Conservative plans to axe jobs, accusing the Government of seeking to ‘gut the capabilities’ of the civil service and risk heaping pressure on already-stretched services such as the Passport Office. 

Speaking during Cabinet Office questions in the Commons, Labour MP Alex Norris (Nottingham North) asked how delays to getting passports and driving licences renewed is ‘compatible’ with the Government’s plan to cut civil servant numbers.  

Mr Barclay, who also holds the role of the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, replied: ‘At the moment, only a very small proportion of the passport application process is automated.

‘If you take, for example, the photo being done in the booth as opposed to at home, that significantly increases the level of automation that they’re able to deliver.

What is the technology that Steve Barclay thinks can revolutionise the passport office and cut the need for so many public sector jobs? 

Cabinet Office Minister Steve Barclay is a champion for new technology that companies such as Amazon have put to good use to efficiently maximise profits and minimise waste. 

A large part of that includes data analytics. The NHS has access to an enormous trove of patient data and is using AI to analyse it on millions of patient safety incidents so that clinicians can easier learn from what does and doesn’t work. 

The technology can in theory reduce what would previously require years of effort to the work of a few hours 

‘We just need to help public servants make better use of the kind of systems and insights that are already in daily use over in cutting-edge parts of the private sector, powering everything from banking to holiday bookings,’ Mr Barclay wrote in iNews

The passport office groans under the weight of a vast number of paper forms, each filled out delivered and processed by hand.

Automating these processes and employing data analysis can streamline matters. And the techniques can be applied across different offices and departments.

Mr Barclay confidently predicted that by ‘securely combining a range of different datasets, researchers can identify patterns, spot problems, develop solutions more quickly, better tailoring policies to business and taxpayer needs.’

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‘That, in turn, reduces the number of staff that are manually required and it is such a Luddite approach from the Opposition benches to suggest that when businesses like Amazon are showing exactly what technology can deliver, that they seem to think that the Government, who is there to serve the taxpayer and the public, should not be embracing the same technology that we see now in our best companies.’

Shadow Cabinet Office minister counterpart Rachel Hopkins criticised the Government for pursuing a ‘reckless ideological cuts agenda’ and questioned how the proposals will increase diversity in senior roles. 

Ms Wheeler, in her reply, said: ‘The taxpayers, respectfully, should have value for money, and a civil service that has grown by 24% in only a few years is outrageous.

‘What is the most important point about diversity is that we are moving jobs out of London, and regional jobs all over, and we are reflecting the public in those regional jobs.’

Ms Hopkins later warned: ‘The Government’s all-male cuts committee, headed by the Chancellor, won’t create efficiencies by cutting 91,000 civil servants, in fact it’s going to gut the capabilities of the civil service to deliver the vital frontline services our communities rely on.’

Labour former minister Chris Bryant described the Government as ‘bloated’ compared to other countries and suggested that ministerial numbers should be cut by 25%.

He said: ‘Isn’t it time that if we’re going to have a cull of civil servants that we have a cull of ministers? At least a quarter of the frontbench should go.’

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner also raised reports that Conservative peer Lord Maude of Horsham will lead a review of the civil service – a role he previously undertook in government while a Cabinet Office minister.

She asked Mr Barclay: ‘Can the minister tell us what value for money and performance measurement has taken place since the conclusion of Lord Maude’s review? What tender process has been conducted to award Francis Maude Associates this work?

‘And what conflict of interest assessment has taken place, or are ministers lining the pockets of their mates with the public’s hard-earned money once again?’

Mr Barclay replied: ‘Usually one would expect the House to value corporate memory and experience and the fact that the reforms initially put forward by Lord Maude were a cornerstone of the declaration of civil service reform signed by the Cabinet Secretary and my predecessor as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.’

He went on to insist it is about ‘learning from the best in the private sector’, adding: ‘That’s why it is a Luddite approach to see any change that brings in technology, that brings in new ways of working, as a threat to the trade unions that support the benches opposite (Labour).’

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