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The 2020 Public Services Trust Blog

Friday, June 4, 2010

Four obstacles in the face of the final frontier

By Charlotte Alldritt

The sheer breadth and complexity of information and technology policy became all too clear at 2020PST’s roundtable yesterday morning.  Leading officials and activists met to discuss the next stage of open government and online self-services.  This brought us into the territory of – amongst other things – the Coalition’s ‘new politics’ of transparency and accountability; cost efficiencies and cuts; social and digital inequalities and the prospect for more personalised, responsive, citizen-focussed public services. 

 Many, many important points were raised, but four in particular stood out for me:

  •  Culture in government, Whitehall and public services - lack of awareness/understanding of the power of online ‘self services’ to deliver high quality for less is the primary barrier.  There is often a presumption that many public services can only be provided face-to-face and alternatives are ‘too cheap’ to deliver quality outcomes and too risky to implement.  Similar arguments apply with regards to open data.  Determined leadership is vital, but the business case for online service delivery and open government needs to be made.  Only then can we expect to see ingrained cultural attitudes and practices begin to change.
  • Provider capture and vested interests – often there are strong incentives acting against the diversion of citizens to lower cost channels.  While models of funding which ‘follow the user’ can help to support choice and competition in public service delivery (in theory generating cost savings and increased quality), they encourage default face-to-face interaction when alternative channels might be more appropriate and cost efficient.
  • Scale – the issue of scale often brings to mind the age-old debates of local vs central procurement of IT systems, software and shared services (for example) and delivery/administration (e.g. housing benefit).  But it also demands we consider the level at which we are trying to engage users and achieve certain outcomes.  For instance, are we trying to enable communities – whether for a locality or other common cause – to work together more effectively via social networking?  Or transform national public service institutions and systems?  Do we need to employ different tactics and strategy to achieve both of these aims? 
  • Public voice – how can the public voice demanding online access to information and services be rallied to push government and providers?  How do we ensure (and reassure the public) that it is as easy and secure to log on to public services as it is to access internet banking? 

Much is already happening in response to many of these four points.  The progress of data.gov.uk and the Coalition’s commitment to publishing  data online is a good start.  But the withdrawal of funding Professor Nigel Shadbolt and Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s web science institute is a major blow.  More than ever – at a time of cuts and cost savings – technology should not be thought about as an expensive ‘bolt-on’ in the hope of making bad services slightly better.  Not least because in practice this (by lack of coherent integration and design) often makes matters worse.  Instead, it’s about using existing and emerging (typically low-cost) communication technologies to enable citizens to work with public services in a way which enables better outcomes at lower cost. 

But I’m at risk of sounding too tech-evangelical.  What is needed is to build the evidence base and let the argument speak largely (and loudly) for itself.

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A vision for 2020 information and technology: Part 1 – Education

By Charlotte Alldritt

The year is 2020.  Over the past decade, simple online technologies have transformed the way we access data and information, hold public services to account and engage with government.  Transparency is the watchword of the day.  The ultimate prize? Renewed political legitimacy and public services finally fit for purpose.  In the first of this series on the part technology and information have to play, I explore the potential for education. 

Susan is a mother of twins, living in London. Her children, James and Marsha, will be starting primary school next year. Each child has different learning and care requirements, with Marsha requiring extra support as she has special educational needs (SEN).

Online data to inform choice

Accessing the local authority webpage, Susan is directed to a GIS system and carries out a search for local primary schools based on her postcode. She personalises the search to showcase primaries with special needs facilities and tutorials. Susan is then able to access up-to-date information about every local school, including parent reviews on the facilities, teaching quality, ethos and atmosphere. Using an open database (with an accessible user interface linked to the local authority website), Susan can also compare data through a single comparative website – from Ofsted, the NHS, local authorities and other integrated service providers – to check for quality.  This would be the alpha version of Tim Berners-Lee’s data.gov.uk.  Digital Public has some other great examples – see pictured below.)

Education

Power to verify personal data and information

Once Susan has applied online for her children’s primary school places, she is able to access the data held by the local authority about her and her children before it is transferred to their new schools. Using a Unique Identification Number and a password for each child, she will be able to make changes to data and information held on her children. For privacy purposes, only trained and security-cleared professionals will be able to crosscheck this information.  With Susan’s consent they may also refer to her family’s GP records (also accessible to Susan online and possibly via a third party – e.g. Microsoft’s HealthVault) if needed.

Cost-effective public services responsive to citizens’ needs

While none of the technology Susan is using is very new, Susan is now able to access a wealth of information that helps her to choose the best for her and her family.  In the wake of spending cuts after the 2009 recession, taxpayers could no longer afford to fund poor quality public services.  Armed with data and information, service users and professionals can assess whether they getting or delivering quality public services.  Susan can share this information with fellow parents online, talk to her peers, local leaders, MPs and officials via formal and informal feedback sites (similar to, for example, Kings Cross Local Environment or diabetessupport.co.uk.  She knows that her voice can make a difference.  Government and providers know they have to respond. 

Technology is integral, not an add-on

By now the internet is not a technology, but a way of being – it is part of the fabric of our lives; we communicate, socialise, create culture, buy/sell, read, watch, write online.  And it’s on our terms, at our convenience – any time of the day or night.  ‘Self-service’ online public services seemed like science fiction to some in the first decade of the millennium.  By 2020, the pace of technological change (and with it, the vast majority of public attitudes and behaviours) has forced governments and providers to catch up and open up.  Not only has this allowed for more accessible, personalised public services.  It is renewing a sense of active citizenship and political legitimacy – the decline of which was reaching crisis point only ten years earlier.

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