Public services in 2030: the need for a start-up mentality

20 April 2016

Public services are about to change, radically. That was the message from Nesta and the Behavioural Insights Team at Reform’s strategy day. A greater use of technology, alongside the use of ‘big data’, we heard, will revolutionise the way public services are delivered – by creating preventative, bespoke services from governments capable of acting more experimentally.

The question for policymakers is: how to get the use of big data off the ground?

The answer is to adopt a start-up mentality. Like start-up companies, public-sector bodies must understand that their successes now will set the tune going forward: fail and the venture will be set back, but succeed and the great leaps in the way public services are delivered will be made. This requires a three-fold approach:

  1. Focus on easy wins
  2. Disrupt the status quo
  3. Address users’ concerns

Start-ups understand that they have a small window in which to show their worth. This focuses attention on areas in which they can make quick wins. Applying this to the use of big data, private-sector organisations have “focus[ed] resources around proving value in one area, and then letting the results cascade across the wider enterprise.” Without early wins, McKinsey has shown that leaders are unlikely to invest in data analytics: unfocused efforts made “in the hope of finding diamonds” have failed to make significant returns and spooked managers.

A number of opportunities exist in the public sector. For example, infrastructure is in place to begin predictive policing. A predictive-analytics tool that merges various crime reporting and intelligence systems to identify individuals at risk of committing violent crime is being piloted in London. Elsewhere, Nesta has highlighted that: “Councils have access to more data and better analytical tools now than at any point in history” – and so are well placed to create predictive models. This chimes with Accenture’s mantra that organisations should ‘start local, end global’.

Realising these early wins can disrupt the status quo – an aim for any start-up. This disruption must also occur internally. Public-sector bodies will need a shift in skill sets to exploit these new techniques. A cultural movement to designing services that prevent, rather than react to issues, will also need to be established. As the success of the Behavioural Insights Team shows, experimental government can only be realised through fundamentally changing the way the public sector thinks about addressing problems.

At the same time, start-ups must understand their users’ needs and concerns. Government should reflect this by engaging with the public to navigate the significant ethical questions that hang over the use of personal data by the state. As the Open Data Institute has explained, it is critical that people understand how their data is being used. The success of open data in Vienna was facilitated by communicating how government hoped to use the information, including collecting feedback from citizens.

To realise the benefits of using big data in public services, government must carefully navigate these issues. By adopting a start-up mentality, government can fundamentally change how we experience public services – making them truly fit for the twenty-first century.

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