Fail fast, move on - making government digital
The room was packed with civil servants, a couple of ministers and a clutch of Permanent Secretaries - not the kind of crowd which you would expect to start a revolution.
But I emerged from the Sprint Alpha conference thinking that perhaps I'd seen a glimpse of the future. Maybe a few years from now we will be able to interact with public services online without tearing our hair out - and maybe government IT will no longer be a watchword for budget-busting inefficiency.
The conference was organised by the Government Digital Service, a compact team charged with transforming the way services are delivered on the internet. They have already brought hundreds of government websites under one roof at gov.uk, which recently won the Design of the Year award.
Now they're setting out to make 25 government transaction services - from claiming carer allowance to transferring ownership of a car - "digital by default" by 2015. The aim is that these services, which account for about 90% of all government transactions with the public, should move entirely online so that the old versions can be switched off.
The conference saw presentations on how far along the road these projects have come, and what the results might be in terms of savings for the government and a better experience for users. As an example of the potential for cost cutting, look at the scheme where farmers apply for Common Agricultural Policy payments. Right now they have to draw a detailed map on paper of their farms, with each transaction costing the government £727. Soon they'll be able to use an online mapping tool, saving them time and the taxpayer money.
One service - student loan applications - is already live, and that's meant a big cut in the costs of running a call centre. On average, a telephone transaction costs 20 times as much to administer as the online equivalent. What's more, many of the calls to the student loan service were from angry applicants trying to navigate a complex process - satisfaction levels have leaped since the service went online.
There's bound to be controversy as the minority who cannot or will not use digital services find they have no alternative. The promise is that a service called "assisted digital" will be available, with organisations like the Citizens Advice Bureaux on hand to help people who cannot adapt.
But if this project succeeds it could have a wider benefit than modernising government transactions - it could show the way forward for any kind of major public sector IT project.
Or at least that is what Mike Bracken thinks. The boss of the Government Digital Service was previously the digital director at the Guardian and has had a long career in the technology sector. He contrasts the approach his team is taking with the standard government IT procurement process, where a massive contract is handed to an outside supplier, inevitably a huge company.
"You then end up three years later with something that might be fit for what you were doing five years ago." Compare this with the GDS approach: "Do it quick, fail fast, learn your lessons and continue to change - that's why you need the skills inside the organisation." And with a philosophy of open standards, there is much more flexibility to work with other, smaller suppliers as the project moves on.
One example of how this approach works is that farm payments' service. "That was going to be a multimillion pound procurement, " Mike Bracken explains."It had all the hallmarks of a very expensive investment in IT with very uncertain outcomes." Instead they built a rough version of the new mapping system in eight weeks, and are due to put it through beta testing at the end of this year, and go live by January 2015."We're miles ahead of schedule and in comparison with a large IT project we've hardly spent any money."
Last week the Office of Fair Trading launched an investigation into government IT procurement. It has been described as an oligopoly, where the top 20 IT suppliers scoop up over £10bn in public sector contracts - so Mike Bracken's idea of a different approach which would allow in smaller firms is timely.
Mind you, there will be a sizeable lobby resisting change - from cautious civil servants who still think it is safer to rely on the devil you know, to the big companies who stand to lose out. They will be watching the progress of these new digital services for any sign of problems.
However much Mr Bracken may think it a good idea to fail fast and move on, others may prefer the old way - fail slowly and carry on - and politicians do not like failures of any kind.. So the GDS team will have to prove they can deliver some victories too. If they succeed, then that really could change the way government works.