During the Covid-19 pandemic, staff at the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) faced an onslaught of new Universal Credit claims. Some weeks saw them tackling 10-fold spikes, but the service was able to adapt and the public still got their much needed financial support.
How was the DWP able to respond to this unprecedented crisis so quickly?
Because the Universal Credit service was operating from a strong digital foundation with modern technology, agile ways of working and multidisciplinary teams with the flexibility to scale up capacity on demand.
But why isn’t this success story always replicated across the rest of the public sector? What are the challenges to unlocking the full potential of technology, to multiply the impact of public services? And what’s the key to overcoming those challenges?
The challenges of legacy IT
Cloud computing offers thousands of additional products, services and features that can quickly be configured to transform service operations and deliver much greater value to taxpayers. Natural Language Processing, Internet of Things connectivity, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and edge computing are just some of the advanced capabilities which could increase operational efficiency and productivity.
But these benefits are often not possible as many public services continue to rely on pre-cloud, legacy technology run from local data centres. These systems don’t talk to or share information with each other, and the result is often a poor user experience, inefficiency, security issues and high service failure rates.
The public sector has looked to move away from these legacy limitations in cloud-first policies, including one made in 2013 by the Central Digital and Data Office, and the 2018 Local Digital Declaration policy. But we still see that this drive towards modern cloud computing needs to be more consistently rolled out across the public sector.
The only thing holding us back is our imagination
The biggest limitation to what’s possible with technology today is still our own imagination. With the right approaches, technology can be configured in new ways, and with more flexibility than ever before.
If we stand back, we can reimagine what’s possible with the technology tools at our disposal, achieving much greater impact for our public services in different ways.
1) Transform services from the inside out
When organisations transform their fundamental relationship with technology, they can reimagine and deliver services in new ways. When the right building blocks of systems and processes are in place, operational efficiencies and flexibilities grow. That’s inside out technology transformation. And it frees up people’s time to improve service outcomes.
2) Prioritise employee experience
Everyone in an organisation can multiply their impact with the right support and flexibility.
But even when organisations strive to improve public-facing digital solutions, the employee experience can be lost. Too often, technology is chosen by those that don’t have to use it. The result is an ongoing, daily tech stress, with employees left dealing with systems which aren’t intuitive or efficient, and have negative effects on services and outcomes.
When designing solutions it’s important to remember that context always creates more value from technology. Understanding the decisions and actions that users need to take and supporting this workflow with flexible tools is a key starting point for any technology strategy.
3) Invest in collaborative experimentation
Technology makes new things possible. So it makes sense to continuously adapt, test and learn. In doing so, organisations can quickly build on what does work, and move away from ideas that don’t, without investing more time and effort into them. During uncertain times, it’s even more important to create and fund experimental spaces, teams and projects so we can respond rapidly to changing situations.
Experimenting doesn’t necessarily mean inventing new tools. It can mean using what already exists more creatively. For example, iPads were used as vital communication tools in hospitals during the pandemic, allowing loved ones to stay in touch and, at times, say their final goodbyes.
The key is to optimise success by directly involving practitioners — as well as end users – in the design of services, care and support. This sort of collaborative experimentation means people working openly and transparently, taking shared responsibility for the results, and feeding back on what works and what doesn’t.
As part of our work experimenting with new digital tools for Children’s and Young People’s Mental Health services, we brought together clinical and operations staff within innovation lab settings, to evaluate new uses of technology to meet user needs. Testing ideas with teams at local sites meant that we were able to create change, empower staff to use new tools and showcase the benefits of user research and service design.
4) Distribute value fairly
When experimenting with new types of solutions we must also consider who will benefit from technology, and who will be excluded. Understanding how the choices we make affect the impact of technology is crucial to designing public services that work for everyone.
Increasing the impact of our public services
With the right mindset, technology is a multiplier, enabling services to meet changing needs and expectations. In a world where resources are stretched more than ever, optimising the public sector’s relationship with technology will unlock more value. We’ve just got to keep finding and using the right keys.
Find out more about how the public sector can increase the value and impact of its services in our new book Multiplied, available to buy from Amazon and Waterstones. Multiplied explores the new and creative ways in which we can unlock the technology, data and design potential of the public sector, to do more for Britain’s communities.
All profits from the book are being donated to the Association of NHS Charities.
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