By Suzannah.Brecknell

30 Apr 2014

New web capabilities are set to transform how the public sector interacts with citizens. Suzannah Brecknell reports from a round table debate on the opportunities and challenges of ‘real time communications’ technology

In 1964, eminent science fiction writer Isaac Asimov imagined the world of 2014: the surface of the earth is covered in mega-farms, whilst most of the population live in glowing houses underground or colonies on the moon. Thankfully, Asimov underestimated the ability of modern agriculture to feed a growing global population, so underground dwellings have not become necessary –but he did make some uncannily accurate predictions. “Communications will become sight-sound, and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone,” he wrote. “The screen can be used not only to see the people you call, but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books.” 

According to Ofcom, over half (58%) of UK consumers already own a smartphone – enabling them to perform all the tasks Asimov envisaged, and more. Yet sight-sound calls are not as ubiquitous as he predicted. Whilst smartphone users can make them, they aren’t always straightforward – as anyone who’s experienced a time-lagging Skype call or temperamental video-conferencing system will testify. 

This year could, however, bring a significant move towards that world of easy sight-sound communication, thanks to a technology called WebRTC – or ‘real time communications’. This allows internet browsers to communicate directly with one another, exchanging sound and vision without the need for any extra software or plug-ins such as Skype. So a web browser becomes a high-end communication tool without the need for multiple downloads, avoiding the risk of virus infection or the need for expensive software. Video-calling and -conferencing are among the most obvious applications, but this is just the start. We could see, for example, programmes which let people control their computers using head movements tracked via webcam. There could be big implications for public service delivery, and thus for the civil service; so CSW teamed up with communications technology firm Unify to discuss both the opportunities presented by WebRTC, and the challenges that will need to be addressed if those benefits are to be realised.

Visions of the future
Unify’s chief technology officer Michael Bowyer began the round table by sketching out a vision for how public services could use WebRTC, and the applications that are likely to run through it. As well as opening up alternative ways to communicate with government – such as web chats or video calls – WebRTC-enabled technology could allow computers to digitally transcribe conversations straight after they are finished, sending the transcript to customers for their records; to give frontline staff immediate access to all data on that caller, so that casework can proceed more quickly; and to transfer calls and the relevant case information straight through to partner organisations, rather than making lengthy referrals. It could enable “the next generation of digital by default,” he concluded.

Emma Davies, head of the Consular Strategy and Systems Team in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, agreed that WebRTC could have a “potentially huge impact” on her department. For example, it could help consulates across the world to share skills and expertise, allowing “pockets of best practice” to help out other consulates: if one outpost has a particular expertise in, say, providing mental health support, then its staff could offer advice to local staff and assistance to British citizens suffering mental health problems in another part of the world.

Though the benefits to frontline services could be significant, David Balding, project and information manager at the Department for Energy & Climate Change, warned that government shouldn’t overlook the benefits for its own staff and operations. He likened it to Microsoft Word: “Most people just use it to type words in, whereas it’s an extremely powerful programme [if it’s] utilised to its maximum,” he said. Likewise, if WebRTC is used “to its maximum effect [including in back office functions], it will make efficiencies right across the civil service; it could enable a massive change in the look of the civil service.”

Others provided examples of the ways in which WebRTC-enabled technologies could change working patterns. The Pensions Advisory Service (PAS) already offers web chats to its customers – but these could be delivered more easily, and with more features. Jonathan Kalemera, head of corporate services at the PAS, noted that web chats are not just popular with the public, but also with staff. “It has enabled us to work differently,” he explained – for example, PAS can now offer out-of-hours support “because our staff don’t have to sit in the office physically” to offer advice. 

Web-chats can also improve productivity, noted Adam Boyles – assistant director for digital engagement at UK Visas & Immigration – since staff can handle several chats at once, rather than just one call. His organisation already offers web-chats as part of an outsourced international helpdesk service: foreign nationals can buy blocks of time to speak with an adviser about the policies and processes of applying for a visa. 

The drive towards flexible ways of working provides another of WebRTC’s key attractions for the Ministry of Justice, said Kumar Vijayaratnam, the ministry’s interim joint head of infrastructure services. He explained that one of the first WebRTC-based applications the MoJ hopes to implement will use webcasting (essentially broadcasting over the internet) to provide training both for staff and external partners. He also raised another significant benefit of WebRTC: it is based on open-source software, so services running through it should be interoperable and re-usable. “The fact that it’s a consistent standard that’s implemented by all [technology providers] is going to be hugely supportive of reducing our operating costs,” he said. “These are all off-the-shelf products, [ready to use] out of the box.” 

Unify’s Bowyer added that WebRTC should demand only small levels of investment: even the cheapest laptops can now work with WebRTC technologies, he said, and “the functionality that that will provide replaces a device that the public sector is buying today [at a cost] of around about £2500.”

Bumps in the road
So what obstacles might clutter the path to this bright future? Several participants raised security issues – a common concern about any new technology in government. Bowyer responded that any communication through WebRTC “is secure, because it establishes an encrypted pipe between the communicator and the public sector individual”. It’s this, he added, which means that – given a change in the Data Protection Act – “you can share information [about individuals or cases] over the internet instantly rather than sending it in the post.”

So the technology can be secure – though Kumar noted that using WebRTC “does not take away your need to do due diligence on the applications that you purchase.” Bowyer added that the first applications available through government’s digital marketplace CloudStore are likely to have pan-government accreditation for IL2 security classification; or, rather, its equivalent in the recently-reformed classification system. More secure applications will follow soon if there is sufficient demand, he added.

Beyond the technical aspects of security, however, are the policy and legislative frameworks which govern service delivery – such as the data protection laws that limit departments’ ability to share information. It is only recently, thanks to the changes in security classifications, that departments have been allowed to send personal information to individuals via any other route than post. And further policy changes may well be required if the full flexibility of WebRTC is to be realised. 

Participants at this round table focused particularly on the challenges of verifying a customer’s identity through a web-chat or video-call. WebRTC applications can include a number of ways to verify identity, from process-based options such as security questions to full biometric solutions using web cams – a future possibility raised by DECC’s Balding. But some services require signatures to verify identity, usually because this is stipulated in the legislation which established the service. Here, again, there are technical solutions: service users could sign their names using a stylus on a tablet, suggested Matthew Mallet, chief technology officer at the Serious Fraud Office. 

Such solutions would add cost and could weaken the flexibility of a fully digital service; but Vijayaratnam concluded that technology isn’t the core issue here. A more important challenge, he said “is legislation and how government goes about legislating for some of these [new services].” Sally Mills, a programme design, requirements and assurance lead at HMRC, added that the requirement for legislative change could significantly delay the roll-out of new services: “Some legislation is so old it would require primary legislation to change it – a whole year’s cycle.”

Designing the future
Despite his enthusiasm for WebRTC, Vijayaratnam sounded another note of caution when he reminded participants that this is simply a tool to build new services, not the immediate answer to all delivery challenges. “It’s going to facilitate and enable the integration of various services,” he said, “but it’s not going to be the panacea for everything. It is going to help people do things better and differently, but the underlying systems and services that you’ve currently got will still be required.”

HMRC’s Mills echoed this point when she noted that her department is considering using avatars (virtual customer assistants, like those offered by stores such as Ikea) to give customers advice. Avatars, she said, are only as helpful as the database and algorithms they use to provide advice. “Our challenge is that data behind it,” said Mills: the information and functionality within the system have to be good.

The FCO’s Davies agreed on the need to keep customer trust and convenience at the forefront of service design. FCO’s user testing, she said, shows that “the public generally trusts government channels much more highly than they trust social media.” It is, therefore, “really, really important that we get this right and maintain that trust.” A mistake on these new digital channels could undermine trust in many aspects of service delivery, she warned. It will also be important to retain “channel choice”, she said, giving users the ability to communicate with government in the way that’s best for them. 
Making the future a reality
Bukola Feyistan, from HMRC’s digital solutions programme, voiced another concern which is common to many new services: “I agree this is the future,” she said, “but I’m concerned with the humungous number of customers that we deal with at HMRC, [and] how we’re going to be able to roll [it] out.” So how can departments best implement the new technologies on offer? 

Davies suggested an iterative approach. “Let’s do the bits we can do now, and then learn from that wherever we can,” she said. This might mean that we don’t see the full benefits of WebRTC right away, she said – for example, it may only be available for unclassified communications – but even that could be “massively important”. In the FCO context, for example, a WebRTC call might allow a consular office to speak to a British national in a remote hospital to provide advice and support. “It’s not all about the transactional data exchange, which should certainly be secure,” she said. “Sometimes it can just be about the contact.” 

Several participants indicated that their departments are already looking at WebRTC technology in small pilots or trials, so it seems that Davies’ approach chimes with that of other parts of government. Starting small and learning from best practice can not only bring some benefits more quickly, but might also help to maintain public trust and mitigate concerns about new technologies, suggested Melissa Crawshaw-Williams –a policy adviser at UK Trade & Investment. Much of this concern is based on “fear of the unknown”, she suggested, recalling the discussions about televising parliament: “There was a massive outcry, [with MPs] thinking: ‘No, I don’t want to speak on television’. But quite quickly, all that was overcome.” WebRTC concerns could prove equally short-lived, she suggested.

Joined up approach
Another key element in successful implementation – one highlighted by many of those around the table – will be a co-ordinated, cross-government approach to the new technologies. Unify’s Tracey Davis observed that the discussion overall had not revealed differing requirements in various departments: there are “broader, central government requirements” that apply to all departments, and could be addressed jointly. 

Vijayaratnam agreed that the nature of WebRTC and its standardised foundations make it an ideal candidate for cross-departmental implementation, adding that a joint approach would help produce cost savings as demand for new software is aggregated. He noted that “the Cabinet Office already has a Standards Hub, and that’s probably one of the better places to drive this [change] from.” Departments should contribute their needs and ideas, he said, and then “collectively have people enhance that to develop and deliver solutions.”

But he cautioned that moving to this standardised approach may not be straightforward, as every department has technology “lock-ins” to specific suppliers or systems. The challenge of moving away from existing systems was echoed by almost every other participant. Though WebRTC itself is free and compatible with all modern browsers, departments may not have such browsers; might not have web-cams to carry out sight calls; and might have been contractually tied in to systems that deliver video-calls or web chats, for example, using non-WebRTC technologies.  

“We’re tied in to IT contracts,” concluded Boyles, suggesting that one way in which departments’ adoption of WebRTC could best be facilitated would be the production of a set of standards “so we can tell people: ‘This is the minimum standard that must be built into our contracts for the future.’ We’re not just going to buy a whole load of new kit; we don’t have the money for it, so [change has to wait until the point] when that contract comes up for renewal.”

This objection will be a familiar one to regular readers of CSW: existing IT contracts have long been cited as an obstacle to change. But we hear this complaint less these days. Government policy on buying IT has changed, and over time legacy contracts are giving way to a more flexible set of successors. WebRTC, similarly, won’t produce an immediate transformation; but in time, it has the potential to generate a very substantial one. We may be late in realising Asimov’s vision, but we’ll get there in the end.

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