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.

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.

Reinventing business models: what can the public sector learn from digital disruption of business?

In my last blog I wrote about how government is challenged by technological change and globalisation. I now want to explore what governments might learn from the experience of the private sector.

Globalisation is connected to the rise of consumerism. But its attributes of brands, choices, service, access and responsiveness are no longer the preserve of the private sphere.  Increasingly, these attributes define the expectations of the public when they interact with government or use public services.

Unless public services can adapt to these new expectations, the ability to sustain a consensus for the provision of public services free at the point of use may prove impossible in the long term.

Business, of course, has been at the forefront of shaping this ‘new world’. But those forces equally challenge us.

How, for example, does business reform its governance in a way that inspires the trust and confidence of investors and is accountable to employees and the wider public?  How should businesses respond to the opportunities of the global market and new technology, both of which are producing a revolution in the way the business operates?

Let me give you just one example of how these global pressures are influencing business today.

Thirty years ago, businesses could almost entirely rely upon product cycles that lasted for three to five years and business models that could last a decade.  The great companies of the last century created products and refined their supply chains over decades. And they based their business models on relatively stable markets, high barriers to entry and a plentiful supply of relatively unskilled labour.

However many of the most successful companies today are those that have developed a capacity to reinvent themselves – not just once every ten years – but now every eighteen months or two years.

Businesses operate in a global competitive market.  They are challenged to create new value, improve productivity and respond to tomorrow’s customer needs – today.  That global competitive market ensures that today’s businesses simply cannot afford to wait five to ten years to develop a new product cycle or business model. For those companies and communities that are equal to the challenge, this relentless competitive pressure is creating new sources of wealth has increased standards of living.

Next week, I’ll be talking in more detail about innovation and why businesses might have an advantage over the public sector. In the meantime, if you enjoyed this post, I’d be very grateful if you’d help it spread by emailing it to a friend, or sharing it on Twitter or Facebook.  And if you are interested in public sector innovation you might be interested in another of my recent blogs where I wrote about how businesses learn from mistakes.

Judging the young Inventors for #DigiInventorsChallenge in association with Andy Murray and the Digital Health & Care Institute (DHI)

There has been huge excitement in the Sopra Steria Scotland camp recently as we eagerly opened the entries sent to myself, Emily Walters and Graeme Harvey who were picked to be part of the judging panel for the Inaugural Digital Health and Care Challenge 2017.

Teenagers across Scotland are competing in the #DigiInventorsChallenge, giving them the chance to develop a new invention that will transform health, fitness and wellbeing amongst the nation’s young people using technology. The ideas include everything from fitness apps, gaming controllers and online challenges.

The winning team will see their idea come to life through the Digital Health & Care Institute’s innovation model as well as developing the skills and experience needed to make their idea a success.

I am sure the experience will stay with the winners for a lifetime and set them on their way for careers within digital health.

The role of the judges was to critically evaluate the submissions and decide on a shortlist of six teams that will bring their ideas to life at #DigiInventorsBootcamp.  We were all extremely impressed with the original and innovative ideas we received and we carefully considered the following elements when making our blind judging assessment;

  • What is the idea and how will it work?
  • What health and care problem does it solve and why is that important?
  • How does the idea apply to digital technology
  • Why would people want to use the idea and what benefits would it bring?
  • What design and manufacturing problems may occur, is there an outline of a business plan?

When I originally started talking with DHI about being part of this challenge there were three key reasons why I wanted to get involved:

  1. The challenge offers the #DigiInventors insight into a career in tech
  2. Working with young people and gaining powerful user research in their concerns on health and care and how digital services can transform outcomes
  3. Bringing the winning idea to life and working with the DHI to see the design developed and commercialised

Now the shortlist has been issued and so many different ideas have been generated I can see how powerful this kind of engagement is in getting young people to develop creative and entrepreneurial skills.

The next step is planning for the #DigiInventorsBootcamp where we’ll be meeting with the finalists to help take their ideas to the next stage. I’ll be back with more on this later in the year!

See more about Sopra Steria’s involvement with this great initiative.

2020: Retail as a Service?

Digital disruption is typically seen as a form of “waterfall innovation” – where a new entrant unseats legacy players by adopting a radical new approach to service delivery using technology (like Amazon leveraging its own cloud based e-commerce platform capabilities to beat incumbent Retailers on convenience and price). Yet a challenge to this view is that such disruptors are actually applying a form of “agile innovation”, where through incrementally developing their own live services they gradually transform and re-shape a market – a detailed look at Amazon finds its approach to customer service improvement is not disruptive but iterative; where over the last ten to fifteen years it’s used its own net revenues for R&D activities (not for short-term profit) to continually drive massive grow.

The implication is that a Retailer can exploit the competitive advantages of digital disruption by using an iterative service delivery approach – so what could be the benefits and challenges of this “Retail As A Service” model? Here are some ideas…

OpEx Funded Innovation – A major blocker to Retailers investing in digital transformation is that it can involve significant upfront capital expenditure to deliver a return in investment that is difficult to forecast and realise. Applying an “as a service” approach, an alternative could be to deliver small, incremental improvements using a portion of Retailer’s margin earned during the same financial year. No big financial risks, the Retailer can only invest what it earns from the market with the added benefit that such OpEx funded innovation can rapidly pivot to changing customer demands. Yet any slicing of margin will impact a Retailer’s profitability – its owners or shareholders would need to tolerate a different form of financial risk to make this approach acceptable; reduced, variable short-term profit for potential significant long-term gains.

Zero Physical Asset Operating Model – Could the application of a service-based approach to delivery be extended beyond the traditional areas of IT and back office transformation into other parts of a Retailer’s operating model? For example, a Retailer could run a “zero physical asset” business; where front-end services like stores, supply chain management, even sales staff resources are provisioned on a pay-as-you-go basis. A key benefit would be that the Retailer doesn’t run the risk of owning fixed term assets like property or technology that may become commercially unviable or obsolete. However, this would create new risks – a key one being that the Retailer becomes wholly dependent on other service providers’ availability and ability to innovate to meet its competitive needs.

If you would like more information about how digital transformation can benefit your retail business, leave a reply below or contact me by email.

AI Empowered retail roles: the new competitive advantage?

A Retailer can potentially use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to empower its people to analyse, transact and crucially sell faster and smarter to customers than its competitors. So, what might these jobs look like? Here are some ideas…

“Fixers” – Retailers are always looking to optimise their supply chain costs while improving the customer experience. A key pain point is last mile logistics – the need to offer increasingly timely, flexible delivery of goods to individual customers while maintaining the right economies of scale on distribution to achieve margin. A Fixer – possibly a third-party platform service provider – bids for and delivers instant solutions to solve these daily challenges. Their unique ability to use AI to continually optimise delivery routes and facilitate the sharing of local stock between Retailers (often competitors) to satisfy customer demand 24/7 places them at the heart of the Retail Sector in 2020.

“Instore Experience Trainers” – AI doesn’t innovate by itself; this advantage comes from people teaching or training it to deliver delightful and compelling customer experiences on any channel. An Instore Experience Trainer is someone who spends their working day testing different AI driven experiences from different Sectors and then uses this emotional insight to teach an Artificial Intelligence capability new ways to better engage customers instore – rapid human innovation scaled to differentiate thousands of individual customer interactions with a specific Retailer.

“AI Scanners” – As Artificial Intelligence grows so too does the opportunity for competitors to use it to analyse a Retailer’s offerings for strengths and weaknesses. An AI Scanner is monitoring daily how customers are engaging a Retailer’s Artificial Intelligence to identify such behaviour and its source to enable a proactive response to protect market competitiveness.

If you would like more information about how artificial intelligence can benefit your retail business, leave a reply below or contact me by email.