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.

The #DigiInventorsChallenge finalists face the Dragons: rather than breathing fire, we were blown away!

“The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is that little extra.” Jimmy Johnson – American Football Coach

In a Scottish competition, The #DigiInventorsChallenge in association with Andy Murray and the Digital Health & Care Institute (DHI), sponsored by Sopra Steria , six teams involving more than 30 teenagers across Scotland were shortlisted to compete in the final of the #DigiInventorsChallenge 2017.

I was honoured to be part of the #DigiInventorsBootcamp and judging panel to evaluate the six talented finalist team’s ideas that will transform health, fitness and wellbeing amongst Scotland’s young people. The teams all oozed confidence, passion and flair for their inventions and we really wished we could take all six from idea to invention!

I harnessed my inner ‘Dragon’ and took my seat in the judges den with my fellow judges from DHI, Vodafone, Microsoft, Toshiba and Aberlour Children’s Trust.  I was not prepared to be as blown away as I was by the innovation, insight, planning and forward thinking these young Scots had put into their pitches. It was very clear to me that finalists had learned loads from the masterclasses that included from ‘Idea to Invention’, ‘Developing your idea with users in mind’, ‘Marketing you and your product’, and meet the expert salons. I couldn’t help thinking how impressive this whole experience will be on all their CVs and personal statements and how much older I was than them before I gave my first pitch which was nowhere near as glossy or polished!

The 77 Group presented, which included a video message from Andy. In this he asked the teens to take on board all they’d heard and learned over the two days. It was great to hear one of them quote Sopra Steria’s keynote speaker, Head of Regional Government Alison McLaughlin, by repeating her mantra

“Work Hard – Have fun – Make a Difference”

We all recognised it was powerful to deliver strong messages to the  teens, giving them the drive and passion needed to make the most of their experience.

What’s next?

There can only be one winner and the winning team will be announced at Andy Murray Live  on 7 November 2017 where they will also get the chance to meet Andy himself. The winning team will receive iPads, a cheque for £2,000 and the opportunity to see their design developed into a prototype by DHI and Sopra Steria. I can’t wait to blog after the 7 November to share the winning idea and photos from the event.

Find out more about the inaugral #DigiInventorsChallenge and the six shortlisted teams.

How Queen can teach us about Customer Expectations in the Digital Age

“I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now!”.

Little did Freddie Mercury realise back in 1989 how prophetic his lyrics would be in describing the future of customer expectations. Although it’s likely that this subject wasn’t at the forefront of his thinking as Brian May penned the track, it did touch on the themes of ambition and social upheaval, both of which are highly relevant in today’s complex and constantly changing service landscape.

The fact is that the average customer in 2017 expects more, and this is increasingly the case within the younger age groups. Younger service consumers have grown up in an age where the Internet has always been a thing, apps are part of everyday life, and the ability to Snapchat an image to your friend two thousand miles away and get an instant response is not only possible, it is expected. Technology has, to all intents and purposes, liberated us from the shackles of conventional communication.  We can now speak to our friends and family pretty much anywhere and at any time, using an array of services to get the job done.  The rise of instant messaging via SMS and subsequent evolution to asynchronous messaging via apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger have changed the way in which people communicate, at a fundamental level.

Over time, these technologies have become the new normal, and they continue to evolve. A perhaps unexpected implication of this is the change in expectations that customers have of their service providers. For many it feels jarring to switch from a seamless and frictionless conversation with a friend via WhatsApp to then have to call, for instance, a retailer’s customer service helpline, using the actual phone bit of their phone, deal with the automated response system, wait in a queue and then have to speak to a real live human in an effort to get what should, in theory, be a relatively simple piece of assistance. The immediacy, convenience and ‘always’ on nature of app-based services and mobile communications technologies has given customers a taste of the future; namely autonomy.  Instant access to what you need, when you need it and via the channel of your choice is rapidly becoming the new normal for large swathes of the population.

Research bears this out.  A recent UK survey of one thousand consumers showed that 65% were happier using chat services to talk to businesses than five years ago, and that 68% would rather use chat than either email or phone. This is a trend that is only going in one direction as the consumer demographic is populated by increasing numbers of young and technologically savvy folk who would think nothing of flitting between a conversation with their BFF in one instance and their mobile phone provider support desk in another, on Facebook Messenger, in real time.  On the bus.  At midnight.

In short, the very existence of these emerging technologies is making us, as people, more impatient, more selfish, and increasingly demanding, and this is starting to rub off on how we approach our service providers. If you are providing your customers with any kind of digital experience, whether this be via Web or Mobile, people now simply expect an experience similar to that obtained elsewhere within the digital domain. But let’s be real here for a moment. Providing a service normally reliant on people that can simultaneously tick those boxes of ubiquity and immediacy is, quite frankly, a real challenge.

Availability of people and skills to service your customers will always be a constraint, and simply adding new channels only compounds this issue.  The advent of useful Artificial Intelligence, however, will address this constraint. Intelligent bots to augment chat, messaging and voice channels can provide your existing workforce with the additional manpower (botpower?) needed to bridge the experience gap between ubiquitous immediate access to assistance, and sitting in a call queue.  These bots won’t replace your human workforce, but they will work alongside them to do the initial triage, understand and respond to common questions, route enquiries to the appropriate team or, in time, enable real-time transactional processing (e.g. buying a train ticket).

As a service provider, if you don’t respond to this challenge, you will be ignored.  It takes less than a nanosecond to close an App and go elsewhere, and probably only slightly longer to make the decision to do so, when the experience does not meet expectations. Adding friction to your engagement processes will push customers away, and it is simply not an option to do nothing. If your business fails to respond to the roll-call of providing a seamless digital customer experience, you will get left behind, and possibly quicker than you might think.

So when you’re thinking about how to encourage your customers into your digital embrace, think of Freddie Mercury and remember his primal scream; “I want it all and I want it now!”.

What do you think? Leave a comment below or contact me by email.

When fast gets very fast: the dizzying pace of technology in the private sector and what this means for the public sector

In recent blogs I described why I think organisations are compelled to introduce new business models due to intense competition. And this competition is accelerating because of global markets and the introduction of new technology.

Contrast this with the system that is supposed to drive innovation and service improvement in public services.  Innovation in a global market does not – and cannot – rely upon a best practice circular. Yet our mindset in government and across the public sector is that this is precisely how we expect innovation and continuous improvement to be stimulated and reproduced.

We still have a distinctly top down system based on sucking in best practice to some central agency.  There it is checked, audited and inspected.  Then it is spat out over the next five years to a reluctant audience on the front line.  The manager in the local hospital or council has neither the incentive nor the inclination to accept what a ‘colleague’ down the road is doing because, as you would have heard many times, ‘it might work there but we are different’.

This mechanism is clumsy and ineffectual. Yet in the private sector, we appear to have found a different way to share best practice – we pinch it.

The intense pressure from competition forces the best companies to copy and refine whatever they can from their competitors to become best in class.  And the rate of innovation and adoption will continue to accelerate. Take, for example, the smartphone technology that gave rise to Uber (despite their recent problems in London) and how, before the world figures out how to regulate ride-sharing, self-driving cars will have made those regulations obsolete.

It is in that vein that I am increasingly struck by the dichotomy of language that describes the difference between the public and private sphere. It is not uncommon to hear the Government, when talking about the economy, to constantly emphasise the challenge to improve private sector productivity and to create a more entrepreneurial society.

Yet, when it comes to reforming the public sector, the emphasis tends to default to centralised controls.  There is unease and opposition in some quarters to flexibility and change, with insistence on preserving structures and centralised systems.  These two worlds, public and private, which you and I inhabit daily, cannot remain artificially divided forever because, contrary to popular belief, these two worlds are not made up of fundamentally different people.

Nor are the pressures on the public and private sectors completely different.

Both face the challenge of becoming more responsive and accountable to their customers or service users, their employees and wider society.  Also, if we are to remain true to concepts of the welfare state, universal provision, social justice and equity in the delivery of public services, we need to address the pressures of global markets and the challenge to representative government.

Why?  Because these pressures are calling into question the ability of traditional tools and levers – such as the way the Government exercises legitimacy, ownership and control – to respond to modern needs and pressures.

Our challenge is to construct new tools and levers that stimulates public services to find a way of promoting practitioners whose experience and reputation gives them the self-confidence to lead others to innovate. And for the system to develop a set of incentives, and the institutions a set of capacities, to continuously reinvent themselves in ways that align individual interest with the wider public realm.  I am not saying the private sector has all the answers, but it is certainly worth exchanging ideas.

If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy another recent post inspired by the innovation demonstrated by Apple.

I future blogs I plan to dig deeper into how public services can be reformed and the role of competition and choice in public service supply chains. As always, I’d be grateful for your thoughts and comments – please get in touch.

Developing a digital culture to meet citizen expectations in Local Government services

Originally published as a guest blog on techUK Insights

A recent conversation with a Local Government IT manager led me to consider again what ‘digital’ means and what digital transformation means to the way that we deliver local services.

My colleague argued that ‘digital’ is just an expression of new technologies, and digital innovation could be best expressed in traditional IT terms, after all the IT world has always embraced change and new ideas.

I accept that it is certainly true that technology is important to deliver the ‘digital revolution’ and new technologies form the bedrock on which transformation is built.

But I would suggest that digital transformation is not primarily about technology changes but by the changes we observe in culture, communication, consumerism and the unprecedented transformation of society’s operating model.

The ubiquitous and unprecedented scale of societal change has happened in just the last five to ten years, and it’s getting more difficult to remember a life before Apple, Google, Facebook and Instagram.

In Local Government, where digital transformation is looking to leave a lasting and sustainable legacy that genuinely improves citizens’ lives and futures, the Sopra Steria approach has certainly been to make the best use of available technologies, but has always been supported by a strong business spine. We have endeavored to match both the ambitions of our clients with the desire of their stakeholders to consume services in the ways that they are increasingly using to access other markets. Game changing platforms such as Facebook, Uber, Deliveroo and Amazon do not allow other providers of goods and services to continue with traditional methods and still retain happy customers. For these and other digital leaders, digital transformation has been powered by an enormous leap in customer expectation.

In Local Government this customer expectation across a diverse range of services is also driving change and we see many different approaches to delivering digital business strategies.

So how should Local Government drive through this digital change?

We recognise four key ingredients for success which concentrate on how digital can transform the way Councils and their citizens both provide, and receive, services. They recognise that it needs careful planning if it is to provide real, useful, affordable and usable alternatives to the current methodologies.

1. Make the most of existing technology

The first stage focuses on long term planning, and encourages the immediate use of facilities already available within existing technology applications and platforms to ensure that current investment is used to its full potential. This approach encourages quick wins at low cost.

2. Small step transformation

At stage two, we start to enhance the physical service delivery with digital content, taking small manageable steps towards digital transformation. The intention is to enhance the customer experience by increasing the ability to interact with the council online and to start to introduce new ways of working.

3. Re-imagining delivery

Stage three makes greater and greater use of a redesigned on- line presence to replace or extend existing physical processes with digital operations and digital enablers. This would be visible through continuous customer improvement processes that increase customer contacts through digital access channels and offers the digital fulfilment of service requests. Where appropriate, the web will become the default channel of choice, allowing greater service time and funding to be diverted to supporting more vulnerable citizens.

4. A digital business

The final stage of the digital transformation is to develop new digital business and operating models that reach the full potential of the digital environment without just reflecting and duplicating existing physical process.

The activity would be to redesign existing business structures to take full advantage of a digital approach to service delivery. This may take the form of working with partners to improve business outcomes by sharing data and processes. It may consider new commissioning models that are not restricted by traditional barriers but that continue to improve service delivery whilst also reducing operating costs.

The world is changing and digital is changing the ways that we work, rest and play. In another five years we will look back at an unprecedented period of change. Let’s make sure that Local Government is able to embrace the opportunity to deliver lasting and sustainable change today and provide that solid foundation for the next revolution – whatever that may be.

The clock is ticking!

What do you think? Leave a reply below or contact me by email.

The world is still flat: how economic change is straining our ability to remake public services

I want to talk to you about what is arguably the greatest domestic policy challenge facing governments over the next decade.

How to create the conditions for a sustained transformation in our public services in a way consistent with the fundamental values that underpinned their creation.

In this first in a series of blogs, I want to anchor the debate about public service reform in the context of a number of global pressures affecting governments.

Every government is challenged by a similar set of pressures. The most significant of these is when a combination of rapid technological change leads to profound transformation of the economy. This has significantly increased prosperity. But governments are struggling to maintain a consensus of support, particularly as communities experience periods of insecurity and upheaval when technology is introduced.

The change unleashed is provoking tough and searching questions for governments of all political persuasions.

How do we reconcile rising flows of goods, services, capital and labour mobility with the need to create and sustain socially cohesive communities?

At the same time the capacity and capability of health, education, social care, housing and other public services to respond to change is curtailed by continuing austerity. And our ability to build cohesive communities is even more difficult when the very mechanism for reconciling competing tensions within communities – the institution of government and the process of democracy – has never been more questioned.

People’s sense of ‘connectedness’ with government and the political process looks increasingly weak and shattered.

Next week, I’ll post about how business has responded to the challenge of technological change. The most successful businesses are agile – attempting to reinvent their their business model to meet rapidly evolving customer needs.

Meanwhile if you enjoyed this you might also enjoy my summary of our government digital trends survey. We asked civil servants how their work is influenced by new digital ways of working and the benefits for the public

Digital in Government: the next step is true transformation

Have you recently tried to access a government service and wondered why it can’t be as simple and easy as Amazon? Were you frustrated, like me, when required to print, complete and return a physical form rather than fill in a pre-populated online one?

In our recent survey of civil servants we wanted to understand how digital – the powerful combination of disruptive technologies underpinned by new business models – was being adopted across government. How is government seeking to enhance digital customer experience by optimising its digital infrastructure and insight from analytics?

Transformation = Restructure

Our Government Digital Trends Survey of nearly 4,500 civil servants over three years found they have a consistent understanding of what digital means. The most popular definitions chosen were ‘restructuring services’ followed by ‘improving online services’.

With government facing pressures from multiple directions, not least the challenge of implementing a successful exit from the European Union, civil servants view digital transformation as a win-win. Not only can it improve the quality of service that citizens receive, through the development of more convenient delivery models, but these same models can help government to reduce their costs.

But the sheer scale of changes facing the government means that the civil service needs to think harder about the way it works.

Breaking down ‘stove-pipe’ government

Adding to the skills gap I described in my previous blog, there are in-built structural challenges across government. Public services tend to adhere to ‘stove-piped’ models that have largely been left untouched for decades.

Departmental structures encourage civil servants to focus purely on their own priorities. The organisation of government provides little opportunity to consider how citizens’ needs cut across departmental boundaries.

The good news is that civil servants view the collection of data that underpins their operations as a core process. In 2017, civil servants told us that the most significant benefits of ‘big data’ were reducing expenditure (29%) and improving operational efficiency (21%). But opportunities for innovation in new processes (7%) and improving customer engagement (3%) trailed far behind.

Data-enabled government is needed

This example highlights the challenge and opportunity of digital transformation in government. A more innovative approach, such as a single interface for collecting data, is not only a source of efficiency. It allows government to remove the duplication of effort and provides a catalyst for the development of end-to-end processes that place the needs of citizens at the centre.

As government is understandably cautious by nature, digital transformation was initially limited to narrow front-end activities. The focus was on creating digital channels to ‘bolt on’ existing business processes, rather than redesigning processes endto end.

Yet government benefits from being one of the most ‘data-rich’ organisations. The growing number of data sets that are now generated, through the automation of processes, create huge opportunities to drive digital transformation. The Policy Exchange think tank suggested that the UK government could save up to £33 billion through improved data use.

What does data enabled digital government look like?

I think there is an urgent need for the joining and sharing of data across government to help civil and other public servants to plan more effective services targeted at those most in need.

There are several aspects to this data enabled digital government, including:

  1. Predictive analytics: Human resources tend to represent the largest single source of costs for government. Predictive analytics can maximise the efficiency of operations and improve workforce utilisation (helping government do more with – more often than not – less).
  2. Coordinated government analytics: Sharing data across government organisations drives benefits by avoiding the duplication of effort. But going beyond efficiency, the creation of cloud-based big data hubs leads to more personalised and targeted services.

And tailored and preventative approaches are urgently needed to address high cost social issues such as troubled families and health problems such as obesity. Predictive and coordinated analytics lend themselves to addressing these so called ‘wicked issues’ because they are so complex, fast moving and they involve changing the behaviour or gaining the commitment of individual citizens.

If you would like more information about the Government Digital Trends Survey, or would just like to raise a question, please feel free to add a comment below or contact me by email.