Government at your service (I)

13 February 2017

This article was first published in Reform’s 2017 Annual Conference brochure. To read more articles, click here.

Asking what your country can do for you would have John F. Kennedy turning in his grave. Times are changing, however, and citizens expect much more from government today than in decades past. If people can order groceries from the sofa or bank in bed, it’s hardly surprising they expect the same relationship with public services.

And government should respond. Technology can improve access to core public services. Waiting an average of 47 minutes to speak to HMRC about self-assessment tax returns in late-2015 is anathema to the 88 per cent of people who use the internet. Having to appear in court in person slows the criminal-justice system: magistrates’ court cases take five months to complete. Better online information and chat bots would make government more accessible; video links to courts can speed up hearings and reduce the amount of time witnesses and police officers waste waiting for court appearances.

Technology should not just accelerate traditional ways of working, however. It should disrupt them. In healthcare, this means creating a world in which your doctor comes to you. Smartphone apps can do this 24 hours a day by providing information for the 60-plus million GP appointments consumed each year by the ‘worried well’– or the 10 million A&E appointments which end with no more than advice being given.

Designing services around people requires a shift in mentality from policymakers and front-line staff. This requires people to see technology as an asset, not a risk. Better digital skills, a culture where failure in the name of innovation is accepted and the piloting of new approaches will highlight the benefits of new service-delivery models. Involving users in the design of new technology (through ‘agile’ product design) will ensure that it meets their needs.

Delivering outcomes for people in the twenty-first century requires a government that works for its citizens. Technology is the means to do this. Though Kennedy’s Golden Age of capitalism has passed, the Golden Age of public services may just be dawning.

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