Paul Tomlinson 19 October 2020

How will data improve public services for citizens in the future?

Online services for councils have exponentially improved in recent years. Critical information can be found at the touch of a button and local issues can be reported via the council online portal by citizens, rather than by phone or in person. However, online services at every council are not yet as intuitive as they could be.

In recent months, the public sector has had to be more agile to deal with the demands of COVID-19. This has been most apparent in the way that digital transformation has rapidly reached the top of every organisation’s agenda. Seeing the momentum to drive digital solutions has been inspiring, but what could be achieved if this momentum continued?

The ‘crystal ball’ of digital opportunity

Imagine if in the future, citizens could see something like a digital ‘menu of post-its’. Each personalised to the citizen's circumstances and, if applicable, related to an activity the council had just carried out regarding that citizen, for example, billing or recovery. The citizen can then click on the ‘post-it’ and easily discover all they need to know about that service.

The citizen would interact with this ‘menu of post-its’ on the device of their choice, using a user interface (UI) that would change depending on whatever the best practice was for that device. This would mean that councils would no longer pay lip-service to self-service. They would no longer surface legacy solutions directly in the hope that a citizen will work out their own answer – that will be a thing of the past.

In this scenario, more and more councils will control the content that is made visible to citizens. Each council will have its own questions and answers. The council will control when things change - in order to reflect the different events that happen at different times of the year, or exceptional situations. The council will add powerful, conditional logic to drive highly personalised answers to difficult questions. The information would be surfaced in a way that means citizens get their answers fast and without the need to swipe through too many ‘post-its’.

The future is ready today

The data to achieve this is there now. Councils know, from call centre statistics for example, the type of questions citizens ask of contact centre staff who deal with service calls. They also know how these questions dynamically change based on being asked at certain times of the financial year or certain times within a month.

I believe that one day suppliers, even the most ‘traditional’, will freely share APIs, the elements of software code that provide other groups or organisations with access to elements of a dataset. Most will see it’s the right thing to do to enable councils to be at their most effective. However, some may have to be ‘persuaded’ by governmental pressure. The APIs will facilitate data flows for a stronger integration of services and support the evolution of new solutions.

Culture change

Local authorities will choose digital foundations that are future-proofed and able to integrate with new technologies as strongly as with their legacy systems. Councils and other service organisations will have the technology basis to reinvent their roles and focus on different outcomes for the public, with an emphasis on the roots of societal problems. This will require a culture of ongoing iteration that is ready to grasp the opportunities offered by changes in technology.

Organisation silos will finally be broken down, ensuring that executive teams work collaboratively and are willing to free up the data they hold for wider use. In some places, this will demand a radical cultural shift as might the development of a strong, in-house digital capability. Providing an authority with the means to draw on the knowledge of its various service teams, innovate and develop solutions that really meet the needs of local communities.

Contrast this with now. Councils are still offering up digital versions of their back-office systems as lip-service to the concept of channel shift. Citizens are still making those expensive calls to the council. Why? Because some questions have difficult answers that, in traditional self-serve solutions, require citizens, on the vague promise of a solution, to disappear down into any number of hard-to-follow rabbit-holes in order to work out an answer. And because citizens know a council employee can get to that answer faster than they ever would, they call, or, pay a visit.

Now, with the momentum of digital adoption at its highest, is the time to build on that realisation to enable the public services of the future described here.

Paul Tomlinson is managing director at IEG4

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