A Local Digital debate this week explored whether the changes brought about by technology, online services and the Digital by Default agenda hail the end of the public service ethos as we know it. The panel, comprising senior central and local government representatives and a supplier, debated the motion: 'this house believes that the ethos of public service will be destroyed by the digital agenda'.
"The public service ethos of Government has been profoundly changed, due partly to declining trust in institutions, the economic crash and globalisation", said Julian Bowrey, Deputy Director Digital and Corporate Communication, Department for Communities and Local Government, speaking in favour of the motion.
"The public sector ethos has changed irreversibly. 'Digital' has become a metaphor for the last 10 yrs of societal change", he said.
One of the ways that the change has manifested itself, said Bowery, is in the transparency that blogs, social media and other digital services bring to the public arena, providing a microscope with which to examine Government.
Previously, said Bowery, Government was "built on degree of anonymity" particularly for civil servants. "Now people know what I'm doing - previously I'd advise Ministers and they would be saying these things. They're no longer seen as fonts of wisdom. Now everyone knows and is encouraged to have an opinion".
He went as far as to call for a fresh start. "We need to build a new public service ethos fit for the 21st century rather than fit it around something crafted 150 years ago. All that does is lead to uncertainty", he said. "It's better to be honest and start again".
One audience member - a former senior member of Government's core digital team - agreed. He said that he was brought up according to the principles of the 1854 Northcote Trevelyan Report, which set the tone of the UK Civil Service and a "paternalistic" way of delivering services that still lingers today.
"That ethos needs to be destroyed if we're going to move into a new digital era", he said. "I believe digital will and should destroy the public service ethos on the basis of idealistic inside-out public services that need to be replaced with customer-centric public services".
But while there are still up to 11 million people in the UK who lack the basic digital skills to regularly access the internet - let alone digital government services - we have reached a point of no return where the pervasiveness of technology is concerned.
"Should we be a barrier to people wanting to [perform an online transaction] on a Sunday night or on the train on their way to work?" said Councillor Peter Fleming, leader of Sevenoaks District Council and Chairman of LGA's Improvement & Innovation Board, speaking against the motion. "Local government has a role in allowing people to move with the times".
"Digital will be part of a mix to allow us to continue to deliver vital services and helping [citizens] to help themselves. It's no more than a tool and it won't destroy public service".
Cllr. Fleming said that digital services in some cases allow government organisations to step back from processes it traditionally 'served' to the public, for example, in Wikipedia-style online collaboration, and through co-design, crowdsourcing and online services such as website Streetlife which lets neighbours connect locally.
Another more extreme example Cllr. Fleming cited was the Icelandic Government's 2013 initiative to crowdsource input from residents on the country's constitution online (and use social media to gather feedback).
He highlighted that while local and central government have similar underlying principles, at times they are very different beasts. "Government has said to every council everything can be live blogged and tweeted, yet at Westminster you need permission just to get your phone out to send a tweet!"
But one audience member provided a stark reminder of the reality of delivering services on the ground. "The panel is talking about digital as a culture and a way of thinking and interacting with world but we can't afford it. We can't afford to give everyone what they want", said the council Application Solutions Manager.
Another local government concern was about managing the new demand that digital creates. "Digital is about making things better for people, opening up channels", said one council Chief Executive. "But how do you then manage expectations and what people are asking for? There's this concern among councillors", she said.
Cllr. Fleming urged the audience to consider the role of technology for what it was, as a means to an end and not the be-all-and-end-all of public services. "Digital is a tool that's part of a journey" said. "Will it destroy the public service ethos? - no. It's always been changing. It'll change the way we deliver and the way people interact with us, it'll be more responsive. If public sector ethos is about anything, it's about communities".
But Dave Briggs, Digital Capability Manager at Department of Health, playing devil's advocate, disagreed that digital was simply a 'tool'. I genuinely believe that talking about digital as purely a set of tools is too narrow a way of looking at it". Digital is not a panacea, it's part of the solution. Properly done, digital transformation processes will result in a solution for all groups [and] be customer centric - it doesn't mean everyone uses digital.
"If it's a good [online] service they'll choose that channel. There are several approaches to take, it's not a binary debate, if you'll excuse the pun".
At least one member of the audience agreed: "It's a key enabler", said a Chief Digital Officer of one Government department. "With Government Digital Service's work, for example, I've never seen such single-minded focus on the needs of users. I can't see why the two can't co-exist".
Now meeting user needs underpinned by testing and research has become a vital part of putting effective digital services in place, in contrast to a Government where civil servants make decisions based on what they think citizens want. Unpicking this "inside-out" approach is "changing the way things are done in a way that's more user centric and helping to connect people in communities and within government and with bureaucrats like me", said Rob Miller, Head of Shared ICT Service Kingston and Sutton, speaking against the motion.
"We have no choice but to embrace digital 'in the round' - not just for the subset with the whizzy phones", he said, and called on the audience to consider the example of John Lewis, which is re-designing its entire business around the 'consumer experience'.
"Digital will change the way people experience services but not the values that underpin them", said Miller.
Joel Bellman, Partner, Deloitte, speaking for the motion, agreed. "Most of digital is revolutionary and changing the way the world works, but public values are timeless".
He pointed out there are two ways to define the 'public service ethos' as laid out in the motion: "as a value set or as a way of working that's emerged over time", which he said had resulted in an "inside-out service mentality. Silo thinking and a 'we know best attitude' is no bad thing to lose", he said.
"We're in danger putting digital on a pedestal", said a leader from the Society of IT Management (Socitm) in the audience. "I see the democratisation of information and public services. We're bringing it back to where it belongs - with the citizens.
"It's about transparency and the removal of bureaucracy. It's about people in communities serving each other and it's an opportunity to make complex services more streamlined. It's about claiming that ground as a society and as people."
The audience was asked to vote for or against the motion before and after the debate took place. Here are the results:
On the fence: 2
On the fence: 1