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38 minutes may be a luxury: Changing our expectations of digital public services



Jos Creese, president of BCS – The Chartered Institute for IT, calls for some changes in attitude to add momentum to ‘digital by default’

We still have a long way to go in designing 'digital by default' public services. Not only are digital services still typically bolted on to traditional ways of doing business, but in general they are poorly integrated across service boundaries to meet citizen needs.Traditional thinking and traditional silos stop more radical change happening.

Just as importantly, public expectations need to be recalibrated. Take, for example, the recent criticism in the press of HM Revenue & Customs’ (HMRC) call handling. A survey by Which? found that it can take an average of 38 minutes before a call is answered on the HMRC helpline, implying that we all think it should be staffed for a much more rapid response to random callers.

But why? We should be using chat lines, self-service or automated help, or social media when we need help from our public services - and the telephone should be a last resort.

If systems are really well designed, then little help should be needed, especially for services such as HMRC’s (health and social care are a little different). We want our public services to be more business-like, more efficient, lower cost - more like the private sector. That means that traditional face-to-face and telephone services will need to be used more sparingly and, arguably, become a poor relative to other channels.

The worry is that this move to ‘digital by default’ will depersonalise service and disenfranchise vulnerable groups – who are often the main clients of many of our public services. But this need not be the case if digital services are designed with digital inclusion as a key principle.

In fact, digital access will overcome many of the barriers to obtaining a service that currently exist: making connections between related services, giving better self-help guidance and contact information, helping intermediaries such as families, friends, agencies, community groups and charities to help others. There are times when the phone is a necessary expense, but it should be used judiciously, with awareness of the cost.

We often seem to be hovering on the sidelines of digital adoption. We fall back on more familiar methods of service delivery as a failsafe, and pander to the press and traditionalists who want better, cheaper public services but resist fundamental change.

Many expect to be able to get a service on the phone by right, even when it is readily available online. In many cases this is because we make it too easy to call. I am not advocating deliberately making the phone service poor, just that there should be an acknowledgement that it is not the preferred, easiest or best way of getting help for most things.

I believe that public services need to be bolder in moving to digital models. I don't think we have a choice if we are to meet growing demand with massively reduced budgets, let alone to connect services such as health and social care to reflect individual and community needs.To do this well requires cultural change in our public services, but it also needs the public to support that change. That is what the Government Digital Service (GDS) needs to be about, not only stimulating public service transformation, but encouraging and educating the public in how to use common digital services (and why they can be trusted).

Delivering digital citizen services that are accepted as the default means adopting new service design principles (the GDS ones are more than adequate for wide adoption); and they should speak less about technology than about common sense. For example:

Making it truly easy to self-serve online

To find information you need well-tuned search engines and interface designs that reflect what people want to do, not how we are internally structured (no one cares about the names of our internal departments).

Transactions should be simple, intuitive and 'one-and-done', with no obtuse log-in processes, form filling or a need for subsequent manual intervention or data entry. That applies to everything from public planning consultations to choosing care packages for an elderly relative.

Making it personal

Digital makes it possible to use common processes in ways that are not faceless and generic.

By appropriate reuse and sharing of customer information, we should all be able to access (or agree to be sent) information about the public services in our area as and when we want, with consistency. That might be neighbourhood planning, local events, school notices, new or changed services. I want an app for that.

But we also need specific services joined together digitally around our needs - whether it is a death in the family, a health issue, educating our children or just dealing with waste collection. Today, political and geographic barriers still get in the way. As does an outdated system of financing public services which predates the digital age.

Being consistent across channels

Call it what you like (e.g. a ‘channel strategy’), but a digital front end design for public service must consider all channels to information and services: face to face, telephone, fax, video conference, intermediaries, letters, email, SMS, social media messaging.

The service should still be consistent, fundamentally digital, and the easiest and fastest service should always be digital self-service. This means a high dependency on digital services being ‘always on’, secure, resilient with access over good broadband and mobile infrastructure UK-wide. And they should provide an exemplary track record in handling, holding and sharing our personal data securely.

These must be GDS priorities.

Empowering employees

True digital businesses recognise that front line staff need to be able to act - to have authority to respond and intervene when they think it necessary. Digital does not mean 'impersonal', in fact quite the reverse. Digital is a chance to make our public services personal where they have become grey and faceless.

This is a deep cultural issue, but empowering staff in any sector, leads to better services at lower cost and improved outcomes. So all public sector employees need to be aligned to a digital delivery culture.

Social media matters

It’s a hugely powerful way of connecting people with services, yet there is still a fear about its use in part of the public sector.

Social media is fast and immediate and supports all of the aims above. So why limit its use to the marketing and comms department? Social media should be used everywhere in the public sector, to reconnect with citizens, partners and employees. It should be a way of changing culture fast and being more personal in a digital world, a signpost to self-service, heading off issues and complaints early and efficiently. In fact, it should be seen as a way of reconnecting politicians and democracy with people.

So let’s just think, before we criticise HMRC for poor phone handling, whether we are part of the problem in perpetuating outdated and inefficient public service models in the digital age. 38 minutes may be luxury.

Jos Creese is also principal analyst with Eduserv and associate director of Socitm.



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