Encounters of the Tech Kind: PS2030
Ella reports back from TechUK's PS2030 conference pondering on the public services of the future and asks who should be driving this change?
It was universally agreed at TechUK’s Public Services 2030 Conference that civil servants want technologies and citizens want online public services. The event explored the technologies that will drive the UK towards being a ‘Smarter State.’
Or perhaps this transition is driverless? It sounded a lot like we’re confident in autonomous vehicles, but not in digital leadership.
Nic Harrison, Director of Service Design and Assurance at GDS, gave an interesting analogy: It wasn’t until the 1940-50s that electricity began to have a significant impact on society, despite the fact that it had been known about for well over 100 years. This was because people were still using their old systems, just powered by electricity instead of steam. In the present day, our situation is very similar. We’re running a paper-based system using electronics and digital technologies.
So, what’s stopping the digitisation of services?
One of the takings from the event was that the private sector could do more to articulate the benefits of the technologies (which already exist). But that might not be entirely fair – tech isn’t always bought because it’s a nice-to-have. Local government are being forced to use AI to deal with the volume of problems expected due to a 40% budget cut. And is it really a wholesome digital transformation if it’s done off the back of resource pressures? Digital should be complementary to the empathy and talents of human beings; or as one panellist said, should “put the public back into public services.”
Nonetheless, the array of speakers each littered their talks with technologies they are excited by or are already integrating into the (re)design of public services. These included:
- Webchats and Virtual assistants
- Voice ID and Biometrics
- Personalised services
- Data sharing and analytics
- AI and machine learning
- An API economy
- IoT and Smart Cities
- Robotics and autonomous vehicles
- And Blockchain (my personal favourite)
The application of these technologies is far more important than the technologies themselves. We heard the usual (though always welcome) avowals of the importance of fairness and inclusivity, and moving from Enterprise IT towards Consumer-based IT. “Digital transformation is about people not technologies.” By the end of the day, the glass-walled venue at Old Street had become a self-confessed echo chamber.
For me, the real vision of a digitally transformed public sector came with the idea of a “joined-up government.” Users only want to do things once, to tell government about their new address or new name or new child, one time. Reasonable. But that means government need to share data and talk to each other, to foster cross-departmental collaboration (much like the grassroots One Team Government movement is championing, although this wasn’t mentioned at the conference).
This probably won’t happen tomorrow, considering all the political uncertainty and, at risk of being just another person shouting in the chamber, how can such a transformation happen without digital leadership?
As I listened to each talk, I began to piece together a picture of the challenges we’re facing:
Government need to “join up” and share data between departments to enable the “tell us once” improvements. However, citizens are increasingly concerned about their data security and protection and don’t actually know what data they are sharing, which leads to a lack of ownership of one’s data and a lack of trust in how it’s being used. Consequentially, citizens feel unempowered, their digital/cyber/health literacy is impacted and we become concerned about Big Brother-style surveillance. Unfortunately, this means that projects/programmes are often shelved because of a misunderstanding of how citizens’ data will be used, meaning progress towards a “joined up” government is blocked.
Then, it becomes easier to focus on the low-hanging fruit and government, especially local authorities, continue to develop their own separate solutions (meaning the country has up to 400 approaches to one problem). This means we continue to operate in a pre-digital way, where platforms are managed locally to varying successes.
On the national level, there continues to be a lack of a cohesive explanation of how data is used in government, leading to more uncertainty and scepticism. This leads to measures like GDPR. On the one hand, GDPR will make data use more transparent and less will be unknown however it also presents a huge challenge to the public sector to be compliant and gain consent from citizens to process their personal data.
The hope is that GDPR will be an opportunity to solve this big-picture problem, as with more transparency, citizens’ trust in technologies and data-sharing could increase and this barrier removed from forming a “joined-up government.”
So, in all, when we talk about “digital transformation,” we’re really talking about a cultural transformation; this was my main take-away from the PS2030 Conference. The technologies needed for functional changes mostly already exist, but in fact what people (civil servants and citizens alike) really want is a completely new way of working: an open culture built on respect, an accepting and inclusive environment that our public services are built around and a culture where the power and agenda is in the citizens’ hands. Clare Moriarty summed up this vision nicely:
Clare Moriarty, Permanent SecretaryDEFRA
“Government as an unconference organiser.”
The closing remark of “see you in 2018, for the next 2030 conference,” made me wonder, and wander out of the hall distracted, towards the beer and pizza. Will we keep talking about 2030 until it’s 2029? Is there ever an end goal, and will we ever reach it? Or, will the “public services of the future” be here sooner than we think…