Which technologies will change the way we work, and which are just a flash in the pan? Suzannah Brecknell reports on a discussion of how new technologies are set to transform government’s interactions with the public.
The BBC’s long-running show Tomorrow’s World was produced from 1965 to 2003, charting four decades of inventions which changed the way we live and work – such as ATM cash machines, mobile phones and barcode readers – as well as several which didn’t, including a fold-up car that fitted inside a suitcase.
The number of technological dead-ends and unwanted inventions featured on the programme over the years provide a clear warning for civil servants trying to judge how government should use technology: how to sort the mobile phones from the fold-up cars? Changing technologies both alter the requirements and expectations on government, and offer ways in which it can improve its work. But how will those requirements change, and which technologies must government harness if it is to keep up in fast-moving times?
With the support of IT services company HP, CSW hosted a round table to discuss how civil servants can and should respond to changing technologies. HP UK’s director of strategy for the public sector, James Johns, kicked off by outlining four key global technology trends – set out in a recent HP report – that are, he believes, significant enough to warrant careful attention from policy makers: the ‘consumerisation’ of computing devices and services; increasing connectivity of IT devices, and even other physical objects such as buildings or cars; the development of cloud-based services; and the growth of powerful analytics tools.
Computer game changers
Together, these trends are “game changers in every aspect of society,” said Johns. He likened their combined impact to the invention of the movable type printing press, which is credited with influencing 300 years of history through the Renaissance, the Reformation and the scientific revolution. It’s important, he said, “that people who are setting policy, who are helping to design public services, understand those trends and those technologies, and ask themselves how service delivery processes can be reinvented to embrace the fact that the technology is now pervasive.”
Attendees began by discussing ‘consumerisation’: the shift whereby the consumer market rather than business customers now forms the biggest driver of innovation in technology. This has led to the creation of a wide range of online services and social networking technologies, but also to an increasing range of compact, mobile and multifunctional devices which can be used to access these services.
It soon became clear, however, that it is hard to disentangle the various technology trends. The development of online services and portable devices both relies on and drives what HP describes as ‘connectivity’: the increased availability of fast internet connections across the world. The key to harnessing the potential of these technological trends, then, will be to look for ways to exploit one or more of these trends in concert, according to Graham Lay, HP UK’s vice president for the public sector.
The emergence of powerful analytics technologies able to discern trends and patterns within data, he suggested, can provide a way to – for example – analyse information in Twitter feeds to predict sales revenue for films before release, or monitor reactions to a new product and adjust the marketing accordingly. “There’s no reason why you couldn’t use the same sort of approach when looking at the way you implement new services or policies in government,” he said.
As well as the interactions between technology trends, policymakers should be aware of how these trends are changing citizen behaviour, said Coca Rivas Fernandez, senior manager of the Digital Communications and Business Management Team in HM Revenue & Customs. She suggested that government may find it needs to change or introduce regulations which reflect not the technology changes themselves, but the way these developments are changing society: “How does it affect how people buy things, for example? Or how people connect with government?”
Changing interactions with government
One impact of the consumerisation and connectivity trends is that people increasingly expect to access services online – and that includes public services. Government, of course, is keen to respond to this, since online service delivery can be cheaper than traditional methods, and the discussion was peppered with examples of ways in which government is already working on this agenda. Philip Orumwense, head of strategy and business management at DWP, for example, spoke about new online services and even ‘apps’ for smart phones which enable jobseekers to access information and advice without needing to visit a branch of Jobcentre Plus (JCP).
Civil servants must always ask whether adopting a new online service or technology will make things better for service users as well as providers, said Sue Castling, group communications manager at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and Directgov franchise director. “It should be both,” she said, emphasising that service user needs should always be central to adopting new technologies: “It is really important to keep the customer at the heart of what we’re doing.” This should ensure that government only works on IT schemes that really add value to customer experience, maximising the chances that service users will voluntarily migrate to new online services. Indeed, said Orumwense, some groups of service users – such as young unemployed people – are best reached via online services and ‘apps’, so a failure to pursue online services can leave departments struggling to reach all parts of society.
However, Johns was concerned that the debate over online services too often focuses on cost savings, ignoring the potential to improve the user experience. Much public sector discussion of ‘channel shift’ focuses on how to minimise interactions with government, he said, and lacks “an understanding of the value of interactions”. Banks, he pointed out, have shifted low value transactions online so that they can use face to face time with customers to sell products. Similarly, government organisations should look for ways to add value when they come into contact with their customers, rather than seeking to minimise contact.
Here, again, there is potential to harness different trends together. Connectivity and consumerisation may allow government to develop new ways of interacting with citizens, he suggested, while analytics technologies can help ensure that these interactions are more likely to achieve the government’s goals. Integrating analytics technology into online services or call centre software, for example, can allow for a more tailored response to users, and help to guide them towards government’s desired outcomes. Adopting technology should be about “enriching the experience of various different interactions with government,” said Johns, “rather than just looking at the lowest-cost way of doing it.”
Nonetheless, cutting costs is, of course, a key priority across government – and here cloud computing looks like an attractive option. “Over the last few decades, the economics of how you provide a computing service have changed dramatically,” explained Johns: as the trends of consumerisation and connectivity have driven down the costs of communications infrastructure, it’s become much cheaper to have “large, centralised computing resources, and dispersed users using telecoms networks” to access services and data storage.
While acknowledging the potential of cloud computing to reduce costs, Orumwense noted that the government often can’t use publicly-accessible clouds such as Amazon or Google. “There will be opportunities where private clouds [created by government] are more appropriate or where shared virtualisation of what’s already available will be more economical. One has to choose whatever is appropriate to one’s circumstances at any point in time ” he said. Assessing the costs of various options, however, “assumes you know your costs to begin with,” commented Preetinder Cheema, strategy planning manager at the Ministry of Justice, “and I’m not entirely sure that we all do.”
Johns agreed that cost models will vary, but said that the real potential of cloud and virtual technologies lies in expanding the range of business processes that can be put online. He gave the example of tax self-assessment forms, which most people tend to fill out in a short window just before the January deadline. Traditionally, he said, organisations need enough computing power to deal with such annual peaks in demand, leaving them paying for expensive surplus capacity for much of the year. The use of cloud computing power provides such organisations with a new option, he pointed out, because “you can say: ‘I know the profile will peak at certain times, and I will buy the resources as I need them’.”
Neil Ackroyd, director of data collection and management at Ordnance Survey, went one step further, suggesting that the self-assessment process “is a legacy of an analogue world”; new technologies, he said, could allow a wholesale redesign of the system. There’s no reason to build a tax process with one national deadline, he suggested: a more flexible delivery system might spread the workload across the year. “It’s not just about the technology,” he added: processes are just as important, and should be re-assessed in the light of both new technologies and process-improvement methodologies such as ‘lean’ management.
The fourth and last technological development highlighted in the HP report, analytics, can help civil servants to make sense of the data they gather – particularly when the breadth of that data is increased on the back of greater connectivity, which allows organisations to monitor systems and objects more effectively. With more data, clearly analysed, governments can develop “informed strategy, better policymaking and, above all, optimised operational performance,” said the HP report. This could mean, for example, monitoring buildings to cut energy costs on the public estate, or gathering information on traffic flow to improve road management.
These examples seem relatively innocuous, but at the round table discussions around the use of data turned quickly to concerns about the potential for fraud or criminal activities. Delegates were especially concerned given the large amounts of personal data which governments hold, and the fact that new ways of analysing this data may involve combining data sets which were previously held separately.
“Already, we’re linking government datasets in a way which is driven by efficiency,” said Ackroyd, adding that this conflating of different silos can create potent pools of information that are attractive to fraudsters and thieves. “When people start to realise what the outcomes of that linking is there will be, I think, a strong push back saying ‘I didn’t submit that information to be used in that way; that’s not an engagement I want to have with government’,” he said.
Delegates agreed that government will need to be clear about how it is using data if it plans to make more use of analytics and information-sharing. Several participants pointed out that as technology changes the way government and society works, there may be
a need for open and honest discussions to understand, and eventually define, how citizens would like to interact with their government in the future.
The technology trends discussed are “enabling access to information in a way that hasn’t happened before,” said Ackroyd; government therefore needs a clear strategy on how it deals with information. “Government doesn’t have an information strategy: a clear understanding of what its responsibilities and roles are as a key information holder,” he said. “The technology will fit behind that, but without that information strategy you can’t have a technology strategy.”
Challenges to adoption
While these trends have great potential, delegates also noted several obstacles which could prevent policymakers from taking full advantage of them. Orumwense was concerned about how to handle legacy systems, explaining that in DWP even basic software updates can be significantly more expensive than elsewhere because of the need to re-write many parts of the department’s systems. For large departments, he said, engaging with new technologies can be a “painful” and lengthy process: “The private sector have to come up with some sort of funding that will allow us to make that transition,” he said, “because the government will never be able to afford it.”
Johns, however, disputed the idea that “use of proprietary technology platforms is locking [government] in” to particular ways of working. It is not the platforms which are the barriers to change, he suggested, but rather the complexity of the bespoke departmental systems, processes and structures which run upon these platforms. “Even if you could change the underlying technology in an instant, you’ve still got the organisational infrastructure to consider,” he said; to achieve real benefits, “you’ve got to do things completely differently”.
Ackroyd suggested that “the biggest restraint on government IT delivery is affordability of the skills” needed to design and implement new systems. An organisation may require particular skills in-house, he said, but “we have restraints on the salaries we can pay because we’re in the civil service, so we end up paying an awful lot more [to contractors or consultants].”
Lay noted that slow decision-making and procurement creates another challenge. “The
cycle around policy decisions usually runs into a number of years,” he said, so by the time policy changes are implemented “what looked like absolutely white-hot technology may well have become yesterday’s story.” It is important, therefore, that policymakers develop flexible strategies, he said: “What is a trend today may just be a fad: we need to exploit the opportunities but be adaptable in terms of which technologies we exploit where, so we can maintain the service to the citizen over a long period of time rather than just addressing a particular problem today.”
To make the most of new technologies, then, civil servants must focus not just on the IT itself
but on how it could change the processes behind service delivery and the relationship between government and its citizens. By focusing on customer or citizen experience and adopting a flexible approach, officials can make the most of new developments in order to entirely re-think the way government achieves its objectives – hopefully saving money, but also ensuring that today’s government is prepared for tomorrow’s world. ?
Round the table
Neil Ackroyd, director of data collection and management, Ordnance Survey
SueCastling, group communications manager and Directgov franchise director, Department for Work and Pensions
Preetinder Cheema, strategy planning manager, Ministry of Justice
James Johns, director of strategy, public sector, HP UK
Graham Lay, vice president, public sector, HP UK
Philip Orumwense, head of Strategy and Business Management Department, Department for Work and Pensions
Coca Rivas Fernandez, senior manager, Digital Communications and Business Management Team, HM Revenue & Customs