A public services workforce fit for the future – The role of digital technology

Last week, I went to Parliament, to participate in the House of Lords’ Public Services Committee, which is looking at creating “A public services workforce fit for the future”. The session that I joined focused on the role of digital technology, and I was one of the expert witnesses, alongside Professor Catherine Mangan from the University of Birmingham and Dr Aveek Bhattacharya from Social Market Foundation.

The committee started by asking for examples of how digital technology can support public services. The other two experts mentioned various factors related to the effectiveness of service delivery – for instance, in terms of improving productivity, creating flexibility, and reducing mistakes. Thus, in my intervention, I focused on how it can support the user experience, by enabling access to public services and information anytime and from anywhere. As examples of good practice, I mentioned the UK’s Government Digital Service which brought together around 2000 separate government sites in the Gov.uk platform. This not only simplifies life for citizens, but the consistent interface reduces cognitive load, increases trust and supports adoption.

I noted, however, that while the Gov.UK website offers a unique platform, the experience is very much fragmented. For instance, citizens still need to use different log in credentials for different parts of the website. Here, the UK should look at how countries like Denmark or Finland had simplified website navigation and communication with the state.

The committee then asked why it was so difficult to deliver an integrated experience which fits around the “customer journey”. My colleagues mentioned aspects related to technological challenges, the fact that departments work in silos, and the difficulty of sharing data. Thus, I focused on the fact that, unlike private companies, public service organisations can’t decide to focus on a handful customer segments. By default, they need to serve the whole population that need a certain service. Thus, they usually end up with a very high number of customer journeys to design around (around 10-20x more than a private company), which makes the whole exercise extremely complex. Another reason could be cultural: typically, civil servants have the ethos of being fair and treating all citizens equality. As a result, they are trained to adhere to formal legal procedures. This mindset, however, is less helpful when it comes to creating digital products that fit around citizens’ needs, because needs vary.

Next the committee asked how we could ensure that deploying digital technology would not exacerbate inequalities. The other experts mentioned issues around digital access and accessibility, and biases in the data and algorithms. To these I added that it is important to pay attention to the processes, too. For simple, transactional interactions like paying council tax, digital technology could be very helpful. But for complex, high-involvement problems like sorting out council accommodation, schooling, etc… it can actually make problems worse, because these problems usually require interaction with multiple departments, hand-over between units, etc… and the lack of visibility of the process, or the loss of information between units, could actually add to the citizens’ stress.

I also mentioned that a significant share of the population can only access the internet on their phones, on a phone connection (as opposed to WIFI), and not using the latest model. Thus, public services should be primarily designed for mobile interfaces with limited bandwidth, and they need to work on old models.

Finally, I said that there might always be a residual group who would not assess public services by digital means. However, we should not assume that this group consists of the elderly or of disadvantaged. Indeed, some segments might be excluded from digital services not because they wanted to but because they were forced to, such as victims of domestic abuse. The key to engaging with these groups would be third-party organisations such as charities focusing on supporting these groups.

There were some great points raised by the other two experts. You can watch the whole discussion below.

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