Dr Mark Thompson 12 July 2018

‘Plug and play’

‘Plug and play’

The list of problems facing our nation grows longer by the day. While divisions remain over appropriate solutions, one thing unites us: our concern for the future of our public services.

In Britain, public services are at breaking point. Councils are going bankrupt; police, prison, probation and prosecution services are struggling; our NHS is in the midst of crisis; and homelessness is on the rise. The fraying of our social institutions under the weight of inefficiency and burgeoning reliance is undeniable. It is vital that we start investing in some radically different ideas.

To recover our services, we need to make major changes; to make those changes we need to think holistically about how our public services are organised.

Our daily lives are filled with examples of systems that collide over the achievement of a similar function when one standard is all we need. Misplace your phone charger, go to the kitchen drawer, rummage through the cable options and you’ll probably know what I mean.

Our focus needs to be on delivering better outcomes rather than investing in technology that simply papers over the cracks in existing systems – or worse still seeks to reinvent something done perfectly well already in a neighbouring borough. We need to consolidate solutions and put an end to wasteful local reinvention.

We need technology that is consistently deployed, yet flexible enough to serve disparate needs that already exist and anticipate the needs to come.

This is already the business model of global platform-based businesses: the Netflix and Amazons of the world.

Capitalising on new platform-based technology, we can harness its potential to be flexible, wide reaching and efficient. We propose a plug and play system, as easy to use as Uber, as convenient as Amazon, as intuitive as Google, but with 100% of the savings in the delivery of public services reinvested instead of pocketed by shareholders or businesses.

For successful modern internet businesses, the only directly valuable activity is the one in front of the customer. That’s the ‘specialised’ activity: almost everything else is standardised and consumed – and often shared, wherever possible, through the ‘shared plumbing’ of the internet.

A modern public sector that uses the same clear-eyed discipline and is capable of constantly measuring and differentiating between citizen-facing roles – doctors, nurses, teachers, day-care centre workers, social services, librarians – will be one that is focused entirely on outcomes.

Almost everything else – the current functions of services that are purely administrative - can be removed or shared and streamlined. Doing this would save an eye-watering £46bn per annum by our estimates. This investment could be channelled into more frontline workers delivering services direct to citizens.

To achieve our goal we envisage a new ‘digital commons’, that enables the sharing, distribution and ownership of information, services and technology across the public sector. In other words, technology designed to serve frontline staff by empowering them to do the jobs they are trained to do.

The key value is in compatibility and interdependence.

A digital commons would operate like a build-your-own service constructed of Lego bricks. Stored in the cloud, each brick would be the newly-compatible systems, datafiles and processes that make up the base of the public services. This would be in sharp contrast to the current kitchen drawer tangle of incompatible processes and technologies that are painstakingly repeated day to day.

A digital commons would belong and be visible to everyone. Transparency would mean that governments at all levels would be held accountable for being efficient with our taxes. There is even a potential international development dividend: opening our best-in-class public service infrastructure to the world.

Our manifesto, Better Public Services, calls for the biggest reform to British public services since Beveridge. It is ambitious and will require some heavy lifting. But the dividends - better service and soaring investment in even better service – would make Britain’s public sector a beacon in the world.

Dr Mark Thompson is a senior lecturer in information systems at Cambridge Judge Business School and strategy director at Methods Group

This feature first appeared in Local Government News magazine - register here for your free copy.

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