Our Take on the Latest Government Digital Thinking

19 Oct 2017 - Sam Manson

Orange Bus has been doing the rounds of the biggest digital government conferences, events and gatherings in recent weeks - a handful of key themes continue to emerge.

It’s clear from the most recent run of Think Digital Government and TechUK conferences that councils have a lot to think about - addressing short-term digital transformation in the face of tight budgets is the most pressing concern, offset by a growing awareness of the immense commercial opportunity presented by citizen data, and the longer term possibilities of Artificial Intelligence.

Immediate Practical Considerations

A huge proportion of council time is spent trying to coordinate and deliver a complex service network through strained frontline communications channels. Digital transformation provides the opportunity to make this process better - rebuilding services around user needs whilst uncovering opportunities for innovation and efficiency in the customer journey.

Our Sector Director for Public, Sam Manson’s involvement with TechUK’s Local Public Services Committee (LPSC), has provided glimpses of a number of councils constructing exactly this kind of vision, speaking to their citizens and redesigning entire customer journeys around significant life events - such as moving into social housing, which incorporates numerous touch points on council services.

By creating an overview of entire customer journeys, councils can then envisage how to develop more efficient services against an entire experience.

The public sector often labels this task as understanding ‘whole users’, gathering a high-level understanding of user needs which can highlight opportunities to push information to mobile apps or intuitively steer the user towards next stages of a service - finding that balance of interaction and self-service, which makes for a good digital experience.

Once these consolidated services are mapped-out, councils can begin to understand what they’ll need from government departments in terms of bringing service providers together in common goal.

The Role of Central Government

Local councils can’t implement change without backing from the government departments that provide the services, so collaboration needs to stretch back to government policy.

Tech UK’s Public Sector 2030 show concluded with a panel discussion emphasising the role of Central Government in supporting council transformation, and the need for ministers to take joint ownership of creating ‘good outcomes’. This involves shedding preconceptions of how services currently exist in terms of responsibilities and departments, and redesigning the delivery - not provision - of these services like any other technologically based enterprise or organisation.

Building channels to central government isn’t always easy, but in the closing stages of the LPSC get-together, Harrow Council showcased how they’ve begun to build a conversation by creating an ‘Innovation Board’. This board feeds directly into Cabinet and consults with departments about what they want to achieve in terms of service outcomes.

The goal for Central Government and its departments is for its service to be delivered through a perfectly fluid frontline council interface - creating the kind of data-driven dialogue that can take insights from human behaviour and refine services accordingly.

The repercussions for Local Councils and their responsibilities to citizens are fascinating. At PS2030’s Councils of the Future workshop, there was speculation that councils of the future will be freed from the administration and delivery of centralised services. But far from being disintermediated, councils would take on a leadership role, facilitating better outcomes for citizens whilst pioneering the design of smart city networks.

Ironically, this could also be seen as a return to the original principles of local council - more about town planning than trying to coordinate services between central government departments, the NHS and the private sector.

Looking to the Future

Think Digital’s ‘AI for the Public Sector’ emphasised how the purposeful use of citizen data and AI will define the future of government.

AI comes with an endless set of ethical considerations that the government will need to address with open questioning and real vision. Added to that, AI will also have repercussions for the labour market and the wider economy, bearing in mind the public sector makes up a large proportion of the UK’s GDP and supports around six million jobs.

The unnerving vision of an increasingly deskilled public sector workforce on a universal basic income, or even mass redundancy was very clear at the Think Digital conference. But as with any development, how the sector restructures around the new technology is all-important. The general view from the conference was cautiously optimistic, with a common view being that AI could actually bring more employment and wealth creation.

With a clear strategy, AI could prompt a much bigger role for government, albeit fundamentally changed.

Smart Cities could provide the scope for government to design everyday revenue generating services that would extract much more value from the private sector than they’re currently capable of, with private services such as transport and advertising essentially plugging into an automated government network.

The term ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ was once again used at the Tech UK event, and is becoming increasingly apt. The kind of revolutionary digital platform the government is set to build has rightly been compared - in scope and potential - to the civic infrastructural developments of the Victorian times.

TechUK’s PS2030 conference was right to temper the general trepidation towards AI, with a degree of optimism. If an intelligent infrastructure is positioned correctly and manufactured through public sector innovation, government and local councils will be at the top of the digital value chain where the potential for job creation and income generation could be massive.

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