Virtual Desktops Could Cut U.K. Government Costs

Britain's central government could strip operating cost by better use of hot-desking, Citrix argues.
The U.K. government's ruling center-right coalition is committed to slimming down the state and keeps reiterating it wants to decimate Whitehall -- a synonym for the bureaucratic machinery that used to run the British Empire, most of which is still based in ultra-high rent central London. This week, an independent think tank, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, predicted that big government ministries will be a third smaller by fiscal year 2017-18 than they were in 2010-11, while the whole country's public sector (local administrations and the huge National Health Service) could end up 1.2 million jobs slimmer by the end of five years.

There's been a lot of rhetoric out of Whitehall about costs being stripped out at the center, and there's an overall target of delivering $31 billion (£20 billion) worth of efficiencies by 2014-15 by such moves as better procurement and bringing government departments onto shared systems.

A key component of this drive is the perceived need to cut down the "estate" (i.e., desks and facilities). Last year Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said, "We are getting a grip on the government estate -- introducing greater transparency has not only shown the true scale of what we own or lease, it has enabled us to see the scope for savings and to push ahead with making them .. We expect even greater savings by the end of this Parliament, as we make better use of space and put an end to the days where the government estate was bigger, inefficient and went without scrutiny."

But could even more efficiencies be achieved by cannier use of technology?

That's Citrix U.K.'s claim, which says it's done its own analysis on Whitehall data that shows "flexible working policies and better use of technology" could slash costs by halving the number of offices the state would need to run "leading to a significant reduction in costs." In specifics -- pounds, shillings and pence, as older Brits like to say -- the government estate cost taxpayers an average $770 (£490) per square meter during 2010-2011, with an average outlay of $75.2 million (£47.9 million) per department. The logic, therefore, is fewer square meters in expensive locations equals less rent and more efficient workers through things like remote working and virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI).

If the math works, that could be as much as a 32% cut in central government's entire ICT bill, according to the VDI and collaboration vendor's research. (Note that the analysis does not provide an overall number to judge that by; rather the figure comes from a claimed "cost comparison of traditional versus virtual desktop architecture over three years, for 311,704 office based workers.")

The forecast comes not from officially published information but a collation, department by department, of data collected under the U.K.'s version of freedom of information legislation. (Not all departments replied to the request, so the estimates have to be taken as rough -- though possibly suggestive.)

In any case, the analysis suggests that for the year under scrutiny, some chunks of Whitehall offered an average of 1.6 desks for every office worker -- a figure which could potentially be reduced to just 0.4 per employee, it claims, citing independent research from Knoll.

"By embracing the benefits offered by modern technology and more flexible working practices, the government could effectively halve the number of desks it maintains across departments," claimed James Stevenson, area VP of Citrix Northern Europe.

"This not only means cost savings which can be passed onto taxpayers, but also presents a fantastic opportunity to transform the way government works, making it more agile and efficient while at the same time improving frontline service delivery."

Yes, be suspicious of the source: Citrix would love to be able to sell VDI to the government, so there's an element of self-service here.

But the surprising lack of Whitehall hot-desking is worth noting -- by Cabinet Office minister Maude, among many others, we hope.

Mobile applications are the new way to extend government information and services to on-the-go citizens and employees. Also in the new, all-digital Anytime, Anywhere issue of InformationWeek Government: A new initiative aims to shift the 17-member Intelligence Community from agency-specific IT silos to an enterprise environment of shared systems and services. (Free registration required.)