Rethinking public services

I suspect it would be hard to find many people who disagree with empowering citizens (although I have encountered a few). Public services need to put people first, investing power in the hands of citizens and our communities.

For many years now, we’ve heard much talk of the need to personalise public services and to provide citizens with greater choice and control. But why has the delivery of this objective been so slow, and how will the current economic situation affect the government’s ability to deliver? As Ed Mayo recently commented at the Tower09 event, citizens all too often find public services difficult, lonely and boring.

The opportunity

Since information technology (IT) is a key element of modern public services, the public sector needs to take better-informed technology decisions — not solely about how to optimise the business value of their existing technology infrastructure, but also how to re-think business structures and services in line with what technological innovation now makes possible. The application of information technology has become a key lever of policy and business change, helping to enhance both the quality of public services and efficiencies in their operation, with the user of those services placed at the centre of design rather than the provider.

It’s not as if we’re short of the evidence that demonstrates how it is possible to both improve operational efficiency and the quality of public services without additional budgetary expenditure. Take, for example, Edinburgh City Council, which is saving £9 per citizen every year through its IT-enabled services strategy whilst also delivering dramatic improvements in the quality of its services. And Wakefield Council has eliminated 127,000 commuting miles, saving £4 million, through flexible working strategies delivered by IT.

But I don’t see this as being about using IT purely as a sticking plaster on existing services. Unless IT is understood at the time policies are being considered and public services designed, it is difficult to realise its full potential in the delivery of public services. Public services need to be re-thought from the ground up with their target users’ needs in mind. There’s only so much lipstick you can stick on a pig.

Progress in transforming public services to focus on the citizen has been far too slow. Back in 1997, an i-forms (intelligent forms) project demonstrated three separate government forms, each from a separate government department, being intelligently integrated into a single on-line interaction. Both users and departments alike regarded the pilot project as successful. It simplified the citizen experience and joined-up the services they needed. But twelve years later — a lifetime in the digital age — we seem no closer to being able to use such smart, integrated public services. This was one of many pilots that never made it into full implementation despite the technology delivering an improved service that everyone commended.

The challenge

So what’s the problem? After all, technology itself is not the issue. IT could clearly solve complex service-improvement problems well over a decade ago. Which raises the question of just what are the real blockers to progress? And how might we address these and begin to realise the benefits of the smart application of technology policy to a more efficient, agile, relevant and adaptive public sector?

I realised long ago that the real challenge lies in achieving the cultural change implicit in moving to a citizen-centric model of public service provision. It requires a shift in focus 180 degrees away from the current provider-centric model.

This is problematic: the mechanisms that exist in the commercial market, and which enable producers and service providers to constantly monitor and improve their offerings, rarely exist in the public sector. The idea of public policy preferences being checked against facts and evidence, and informed by ongoing citizen feedback in order for optimal decision making and change to occur, remain deeply challenging issues, not least because of the way government itself has been built and designed around the provider not the citizen.

What often seems to be overlooked is that the problem of how to better focus public services on citizen needs is one that would need to be addressed whether or not IT existed: it is perfectly possible to re-orientate thinking around the consumer of public services rather than the provider whether or not IT is involved. But IT can help optimise and speed up that process and deliver better outcomes by enabling the fundamental redesign of services in ways that would simply not be possible in its absence.

A further impediment to effective, timely improvement is the reality that the cost of the structural reform implied by a truly transformational government programmes is short term, whereas the benefits are mid- to long term. And integrated, joined-up public services, focused on the citizen not the multitude of public service providers, cut across a variety of back office functions, budgets and fiefdoms, raising complex governance and procurement issues that have not been tackled to date. To do so requires leadership and vision at the highest levels of government.

We need to break the culture of resistance to change, to stop tinkering at the margins within existing provider-defined services and rethink the UK’s public services based on user need, not provider-side assumptions. As Sir Michael Bichard recently commented during his “a new way for Government” presentation at the London School of Economics, we need to fundamentally reinvent public services not just keep trying to repackage them. This is the difference that IT, and good user-informed design, brings to the table.

An opportunity for change?

Perhaps the UK’s current economic situation may have a silver lining after all — if we can learn the lessons of what has failed so far, and what is more likely to work. But we need to be careful not to retreat into the old, failed models of the past: organisations that bunker down and centralise during a downturn are doing precisely the wrong thing, and kill innovation. Simplistic, mechanistic across the board financial cuts have a significant corrosive effect and often impact the wrong targets.

The public sector also needs to understand risk management (in place of risk avoidance) and be more open about its mistakes so that it can learn and improve. It needs to return to the ethos of “doing things right” rather than just “getting things done”, and to do so at the most local level possible.

If we are serious about the UK’s public services taking a real benefit from the digital age, we need a fundamental repositioning of IT and of the role and design of public services in order to succeed. As with the 1990s reform program in Canada, we need to reassess fundamental questions such as what the UK state will need to stop doing, as well as what we want to preserve.

IT has a fundamental role to play in that improvement programme, not just in terms of operational efficiencies but in enabling real cuts in budgets whilst improving service delivery through the complete redesign of public services.

Canada’s experience in a challenging economic environment was apparently that their reform program provided a period of great innovation and the start of properly integrated services enabled by IT. Let’s hope that the more positive aspects of the Canadian experience are something we can see replicated here in the UK.

Out of our current economic crunch may finally come the leadership and cultural shifts required to drive the redefinition and reinvention of UK public services that we’ve been expecting since the late 1990s. And not before time.


This blog post originally appeared when I hosted NTOUK on SimpleBlog. It’s one of several I’m retrieving and posting here to bring together my posts in one place. The content, date and time shown for this post replicates the original. Many links are, inevitably, broken: where I can, I’ll substitute ones that work, particularly where the Internet Archive Wayback Machine has captured the content originally linked to.

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