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.

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.