Unleashing a new era of public services for a digital society

24 June 2015

Last Tuesday, Accenture and Reform partnered in hosting a timely conference designed to generate ideas on how the new Government can use the next five years to transform public services. “Public services: from austerity to transformation” sought to explore not just the “what”, but the “how” of service redesign.

Professor Hans Rosling, Director of Gapminder, opened the event with an enthralling keynote speech highlighting the importance of “factfulness”. Exposing a general lack of knowledge about global trends he called on attendees to ensure policy-making was driven by an accurate understanding of data. He challenged the audience that “if you don’t know the present, how can you have any idea about the future?”

Matthew Hancock MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office, gave the second keynote address. In his first speech on public service reform since taking up his new post he focused on the need to transform the internal structures and workings of government. He was clear that the next five years are going to see a lot more hard work to find even greater efficiencies. His speech laid out his plans for cross-departmental collaboration, leveraging digital tools and technologies and the use of implementation taskforces across government. While laying out the Government priority to adhere to a strict economic roadmap, the Minister also set out an ambitious plan for reform through the civil service, not despite it.

The four panel sessions featured riveting debates covering issues such as setting the bar higher on citizen experiences, government becoming a disrupter and the need for policymakers to increase their willingness to take risks and not be afraid of failure. Three themes in particular stand-out as key to delivering against the Government’s ambition to reform public services over the Parliament.

The first is the shift towards iterative solutions and experimentation. The disdain for “big bang” approaches was clear. Case examples from the Behavioural Insights Team and Government Digital Service demonstrated that success comes from solving the problem in a localised manner, learning from it and then scaling up quickly. Panellists agreed that there might not be single solutions to the challenges facing public services and thus Ministers should be prepared to experiment with multiple options. This methodology will only succeed however with strong leadership and politicians will have to resist the urge to make premature statements until real success has been demonstrated.

The second is the challenge to the universality of service: a “one size fits all service” is not only unaffordable within the current climate, but is no longer appropriate in an era where personalisation is king. Panellists and attendees reflected on the potential of digital technologies to enable departments to look at vast streams of data, understand the differing needs of users and then tailor interventions. For instance, if police forces are able to analyse data more effectively they can deploy their resources more efficiently, enabling them reduce the number of bobbies on the beat without it impacting citizens’ safety. This approach though is not only a transformation in service delivery, but of the social contract with the taxpayer. If the Government is intending on personalising and targeting services using data, it will need to openly assess its relationship with all its citizens.

Finally, panellists called for innovation in how government buys or contracts services. This was a popular theme throughout the day, with many attendees referencing how current contracting relies too heavily on using tried-and-tested providers, at the expense of Small/Medium Enterprises and new entrants. A new, more entrepreneurial system was called for. A hot topic was also the lack of feedback mechanism for procurement experiences. Too often providers who have performed poorly are re-commissioned due to a lack of awareness of previous contracts. It was clear that there is a great opportunity for procurement to be revitalised and made simpler, but it will require strong leadership from ministers and officials alike.

Dr David Halpern stated that “Whitehall is tilting towards a willingness to experiment” and this was echoed throughout the day. The themes that came out of the sessions showed a wave of transformative thinking in the public sector. The difficult part will be committing to a path of transformation and experimentation when it comes under fire. Without this commitment, a holistic rethink of the role of government to manage ever-increasing user expectations will not be possible. The message from the day was clear: business as usual is no longer an option and a new model of public service delivery is both needed and possible.

Gaurav Gujral, Global Lead, Delivering Public Service for the Future, Accenture

Accenture’s recent report “Digital at Depth: How digital technologies can reinvent the UK public service and shift it from an era of austerity to one of transformation” can be found here.

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