People powered public services: the role of technology

13 June 2014

In his Hugo Young lecture Ed Miliband set out the idea of “people powered public services” to both tackle inequality and actively engage the citizen. Technology is needed to harness the power of people, and shortly following the Leader of the Opposition’s lecture, the Labour Party announced its digital review: Digital Britain 2015. The aim was to develop a framework for powering digital government, putting citizens in control of their relationship with government, including their own data. Chi Onwurah MP is leading the review and during the final week of its consultation, Reform brought together policy makers and advisors, as well as representatives from industry to discuss the challenges and opportunities provided by digital technology for public service provision.

Information and “big data” provides new ways of understanding the public, providing services from tackling crime to meeting public transport needs. It also provides a new means to engage with the citizen. Any review of the Government’s digital agenda cannot start from a clean slate. Inevitably it must take into account the legacy of both the systems already in place and the way that the electorate expects and wants to engage with government. Moreover, harnessing the power of the digital age to transform public services means addressing the fear and suspicion of citizens about sharing their data. A digital agenda should not be a way of taking power from the citizens, and merely providing public services to them, but a way of involving them in its provision. Nor cannot it exclude those who do have regular access to digital communications. Digital public services must be designed in a way that ensures the whole population has the skills, confidence and means to engage with the services they need. But at the same time the fear of excluding people is hampering progress in the digitisation of government.

Of course it is often the citizens that are most at risk, and consequently require the greatest level of intervention and support from the State, that should be the priority for government. Yet they can be among the most difficult to reach digitally and will self-select themselves out of the process because they don’t understand how it relates, let alone helps, their lives.

Digitalisation is not just about the internet, nor the service itself; rather it is a lubricant that improves the conversation between the government and the public. People need to understand why they are giving up their information and what they might get back in return. Similarly, not just individuals but whole communities need to be engaged in digital government. For example, Transport for London has published its service data which has led to better provision of services for the customer. These sorts of services also provide an opportunity for the public sector to promote its brand and instil confidence.

There may be lessons to be shared from the private sector and third sector as well as international examples, which have been engaging with their customer base digitally for some time. The banking sector conducts much of its engagement with customers online and the lesson from this is that if it is easy, people will use it. If it is not, they won’t. As well as the digital route being the easiest option for the citizen, it also needs to be transparent and remove any suspicions that the public may have about what is done with their data.

Affordability of services cannot be ignored when deciding how and which services to digitise. There are also risks, such as fraud, that come with digitisation and the individual must be protected from this. The core challenges are around mind-sets, skills, security and personal control, but these challenges must not stop the implementation of change. Talking about digitisation needs to be turned into real action and the next five years offer real opportunity beyond just a technology manifesto. Education, empowerment and control for the citizen are the means of doing this and there are some big decisions to make about the way that it provides services in the next government; it will be the key Government for digital and there remains some way to go.

A blog by Katy Sawyer, Researcher at Reform, following a roundtable seminar on the theme “People-powered public services: the role of technology” led by Chi Onwurah MP, Shadow Cabinet Office Minister.

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