Enabling tomorrow’s public services

The Government has made the modernisation of public services a high priority since the May 2010 election. The Open Public Services White Paper set out proposals to bring public services into the 21st Century, in part by embracing technological innovation and new ways of working. The Reform-Vodafone-Cabinet Office roundtable, held as part of the Cabinet Office’s consultation on the Open Public Services White Paper, explored the opportunities and challenges for tomorrow’s public services in an age of open and technologically-enabled service delivery.

Key themes of the seminar

Technology can help deliver better quality and more efficient services

Alex Martin opened the discussion by stressing the importance of modern delivery solutions to the open public services agenda, outlining two key examples – diabetes management and UK Border Agency immigration detention – where technology has fundamentally transformed the quality and efficiency of the service. Dan Winn, Head of Public Sector Marketing at Vodafone, pointed out that there was a significant cultural challenge for public servants around new technology and products, and a need to embrace private sector experience and, crucially, intellectual property to facilitate the shift.

Overcoming cultural and capability barriers

The cultural barriers to “enabling tomorrow’s public services” were a common area of concern for attendees. Andrew Tyrer, Lead Specialist, Digital, at the Technology Strategy Board, was keen emphasise that government commissioners should prescribe the challenge, rather than presume the solution on technological matters. This point was reiterated by Richard Harries, Deputy Director for Innovation at the Department for Communities and Local Government, who argued that too often government’s attitude can be characterized by: “We are government. We have got to create solutions ourselves and have our own solution for it.” A related point is that of capability within public services. As Alex Martin argued, there is a “capability gap” within public services around new ways of working, which, as Richard Harries added, is exacerbated by the fact that many civil servants are not equipped with the right tools to effectively commission services in this way.

New forms of public service delivery

The question, therefore, was how to overcome these obstacles and create the right environment to facilitate new forms of public service delivery fit for the 21stcentury. In this respect, Dr Felicity Harvey, Director of the Performance and Reform Unit in HM Treasury, and Tom Harris, of the Public Sector Research Team at Deloitte, both argued that the notion of a “burning platform” of financial restraint was a key factor in fostering innovation and increased productivity in public services. As Patrick Smith, Market Director at Capita, set out, ensuring the right incentives that allow for flexibility and innovation is central to allowing for “channel shifts” in delivery. This was reiterated by a number of guests around the table, including Iain Gravestock, Partner at KPMG, who suggested that some of the payment by results contracts in justice and welfare policy successfully aligned incentives to deliver maximum value.

Avoid the mistakes of the past, and embrace the future

Yet if the Government is to truly enable the public services of tomorrow, it must avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. As John Telling, Head of Public Affairs for MITIE Group, argued, technology has too often been applied on top of existing processes, both perpetuating existing inefficiencies and preventing technological solutions from working most effectively. Technological innovation must be combined with business process redesign and improvement. In addition, services should embrace the future, in terms of both the capabilities of those delivering the service and the demands of those using them. As Dan Winn commented, it is members of “Generation Y” that will be the public servants of tomorrow, and government should take advantage of their technical skills and experience. Furthermore, the Government should not lose sight of the fact that the purpose of public service reform is to develop different ways of providing services that are more meaningful to the end-user. As Felicity Harvey argued, new ways of service provision should think about, and be responsive to, the experience of users and their “customer journey”.

The seminar clearly showed that the Government’s vision of more efficient, high quality, and open public services is achievable. However, it also demonstrated that if such a “channel shift” is to occur, it is imperative that public service have the capability to understand the outcomes they want to achieve, and to have the cultural flexibility to prescribe the challenge, rather than the solution