Using digital technologies to address complex problems – what can we learn from other governments?

It goes without saying that governments face incredibly complex challenges. Sustaining cohesive communities in the face of demographic, economic, security and other challenges will test the ingenuity of politicians and civil servants.

In recent blogs I’ve questioned the industrial-age organization of government and highlighted how the private sector is improving services through digital technologies. Now I would like to shift the emphasis and highlight how governments around the world employ digital technology to drive problem solving.

And I will start by looking at the one of the most significant problems facing individuals, families and communities – mental health.

Nearly one fifth of the UK population have a mental health condition

Mental health conditions cover a wide range of disorders and vary from mild to severe problems. The most common types are anxiety and depressive disorders (9% of all adults). More severe and psychotic disorders are much less common.

Recent research has found that a third of fit notes (they used to be called sick notes) issued by GPs are for psychiatric problems. The employment rate for people with mental health conditions is 21% compared with 49% for all disabled people and over 80% for non-disabled people.

Almost half of benefits claimants of Employment and Support Allowance in England are receiving payments as the result of mental and behavioural disorders. Recent independent studies estimate that cash benefits paid to those with mental health conditions are around £9.5 billion a year and administrative costs are £240 million.

This illustrates the financial costs of mental health conditions. But it fails to address the personal impact on individuals, their families and the wider community. That is why the NHS is putting mental health front and centre, in what was recently described as ‘the world’s most ambitious effort to treat depression, anxiety and other common mental illnesses’.

Using technology to create community solutions

Although overall spending on mental health will rise by over 4% in 2017/18, many areas of the country are under pressure to provide enough high quality services.

We also know that mental health is a very complex problem that goes beyond the capacity of any one organisation to understand and respond to. There is disagreement about the causes of the problems and the best way to tackle them.

Which is why Creating Community Solutions is such an exciting project.

In the US, following the Sandy Hook tragedy, the Obama administration launched a national dialogue on mental health. It soon became clear that, while mental illness affects nearly every family, there is a continued struggle to have an open and honest conversation around the issue. Misperceptions, discrimination, fears of social consequences, and the discomfort associated with talking about such illnesses all tend to keep people silent

The challenge facing the administration was how to convene a national participation process that would help Americans to learn more about mental health issues, assess how mental health problems affect their communities and younger populations, and decide what actions to take to improve mental health in their families, schools, and communities.

Officials from across the administration collaborated under the umbrella of Creating Community Solutions. They designed an online platform and process that integrated online / offline and national / local levels of collaboration. The platform has promoted a nationwide discussion on mental health. It has given Americans a chance to learn more about mental health issues – from each other and from research. For example, in December last year, and all over the country, hundreds of thousands of people used their mobile phones to get together in small groups for one-hour discussions on mental health.

What can we learn from the US?

Creating Community Solutions is an amazing example of how technology can be used overcome barriers, give access to relevant information and promote participation and mutual support. As a platform, rather than a conventionally structured project, it straddles traditional administrative boundaries and provides support in a distributed way.

I’d like to see our government adopting a similar approach, using technology to break down hierarchical barriers and using platforms to promote collaboration across public services and with communities.

I’ll be writing about other innovative ideas in future blogs. In the meantime, do you know of other innovative solutions to complex public problems? What are the exciting ideas informing your own work —particularly if you are working in the public sector – and how are you implementing them?

Let me know in the comments below or contact me by email.

Published by

Philip Craig

I am the Government Sector Strategy Director at Sopra Steria. My background is in the public (central and local government) and private (consultancy) sectors. I have an interest in public policy, technology and public service reform.

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