Ed Miliband’s Hugo Young lecture had some interesting nuggets on technology in government and society. UK Authority has pulled together the tech-related extracts but the bits that struck me were: the aspiration to ‘track’ interactions with the public sector like a UPS parcel and helping people to connect with others to solve problems. I’ll cover the latter, which i have been writing about for years in another article, but on tracking, from UK Authority:
“Just as with the best private sector companies, we can “track our order”, so too in the public sector we should be able to “track our case”. Whether it is an application for a parking permit or when you have been a victim of a crime. Boston, in the United States, pioneered that kind of service a few years ago.”
The Labour leader said Labour-run Birmingham City Council had created an app for a mobile phone that performed the same task.
And he argued: “If it can be done by one local council, it should be possible in every Government department.”
From my perspective as a former civil servant who grappled with these issues, this is the sort of early direction and ambition you want from a politician – a symbolic policy, with popular resonance that gets through to a broad audience, even to non-technical civil servant. And in this case illustrates how out of touch public services are with a new norm enabled by technology. In a society where commerce and communication have been transformed by internet technologies, public services have not been transformed to the same extent.
As Labour starts to give shape to its public services agenda a year in advance of an election we can see some signs of the government as a platform agenda.
‘with the proliferation of issues and not enough resources to address them all, many government leaders recognize the opportunities web technologies provide not just to help them get elected but to help them do a better job.’
Tim O’Reilly, Government as a Platform
However, this is an early signal from Labour at the start of a process of preparing implementable policies should they come to power. Later, downstream the civil service and council officers have to present a method and a bill for doing this and work with politicians on changes. Case tracking is an aspiration that could require substantial business process and technological change. If such change is implemented in a modern way it can open up huge potential for further service improvement to help peoples daily lives. As politicians who have held office or worked in big bureaucratic businesses know, getting things like this done is never as simple as just turning up and giving orders. Delivering operational change in bureaucracies is hard, needing tough leadership across the political, administrative and budgetary disciplines.
Let’s look at an old and new way to deliver ‘track your order’ in the public sector:
The old way would have been a procurement driven process – a civil servant or council officer, maybe armed with a classics degree would telephone their outsourced IT supplier who would rub their hands with glee at the prospect of a major RFC (request for change) that they can hard charge for. The supplier knows that, if a senior politician has commanded the change there’s lots of headroom to keep layering in the costs. And change would be tacked-on inelegantly to the creaking underlying system. Such work substantially increases the margin on the contract for suppliers and layers in cost and complexity and the change process sometimes seem like Dickens Jarndyce V Jarndyce in Bleak House, consuming all costs and energy. Think Universal Credit under the coalition government or any number of IT disasters under previous governments, some of which i was involved in.
This traditional route paradoxically was in some ways the easiest for the civil servant or officer who can just pass on a specific request from a politician to a contractor, dodging some design and implementation responsibility. But with modern time and cost constraints it’s very unlikely that this approach can work.
The new way is a user-driven process – taking such a clear political steer as an opportunity to look again at how the citizen’s needs are met through digital service delivery. And to ask whether this presents an opportunity for re-design around the user, on modern principles taking advantage of the sudden and dramatic changes brought in internet based service delivery. The process begins with and is driven by people who will use the service and the service managers. But it also includes senior officers/officials who control resources but are now better equipped to understand modern agile techniques (than just being able to read Tacitus) and the politicians themselves roll up their sleeves to get involved, solve problems and show leadership – particularly in giving the team the confidence to try things, fail quickly and try again. There’s a manual on it with the strap line ‘services so good, people prefer to use them’
The results of such a process can lead to the need for a new team, including new suppliers with new skills to deliver. The new approach gives the potential for better, more responsive services that also cost less. Freeing up staff resources to be deployed to support the citizen more directly.
In the UK public sector much of this new approach has been crystalised by the new Government Digital Service team created in the Cabinet Office (I am on their advisory board). Their work is based on outstanding practice in the public and private sectors. GDS is showing startling savings and already delivering better services, with a lot more to come as the exemplar services emerge in public shortly (employee PAYE has just gone into early public testing). They have built a strong central team, working in new ways and are seeding new teams committed to new ways of doing things in delivery departments – the sort of capability that is required to deliver case tracking.
But GDS is at the start of their journey and have enough on their plate transforming central government services with only limited capacity to help local services. The Hugo Young speech shows Miliband talking primarily about local service delivery and de-centralisation.
[Edit history – i changed this section immediately after publication – a cut and paste had gone awry – WP]
In local government (where the bulk of services are delivered) there is some outstanding practice – FutureGov’s work in Surrey and elsewhere for instance. But there is an energetic debate going on more broadly about new ways of delivering change where technology is a major component. Expert practitioners (rather than wonks) are blogging and tweeting away about what is the right approach to embed modern ways of working and internet techniques to deliver better services for the citizen. These are the people that will be required to deliver case tracking should Labour come to power, their blog posts are well worth reading – they are frank about the challenges they face on the ground in local government. For instance:
We should recognise things are moving in the right direction, but the local government digital estate is still too dominated by councils doing things their way rather than building around their users. Simon Wakeman
Labour are pushing hard on decentralisation, with Jon Cruddas weighing in with a meaty speech. So having given an early signal of a change they would like to see, case tracking, the next step is to work out what public service reform approach can deliver this and other change like it in a modern, efficient way across the complex local government landscape. Repeating the implementation of a case tracking system 300-odd times across each borough is good news only for the big IT suppliers – this is pretty much what has gone on for the past ten years or more. Richard Copley’s piece in particular sets out the colossal scale of duplication. This is a knotty problem. It isn’t axiomatic with technology systems that support delivery that the tech should be decentralised, even if the service delivery is – UPS does’t have a different tracking system for each borough, but it has local depots.
The wonderful thing about the web is that a rural district council could come up with a great online service that can scale up to serve many other boroughs. Or a third party could come up with a different way of doing it from the customer perspective as MySociety did with FixMyStreet reporting potholes. The cultural and economic challenges are bigger here than the technological ones.
Jon Cruddas on 12 February refers to a Labour
‘Local Government Innovation Taskforce led by Manchester’s Sir Richard Leese, Jules Pipe of Hackney, and Sharon Taylor of Stevenage. Their interim report will be published in a few weeks time for you to read.’
That would be a good place to start – if it has a strong section on better services and radical savings through a modern approach to technology, that reflects the sentiments of the local government practitioners above then we are in for some very interesting times in public service delivery.
As ever these are my own views, not those of my clients nor anyone else
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