How ICT is shaping the future design and delivery of public services

The fourth in our series of ICT Foresight reports is now available. As a taster, here is the summary of the report (with thanks to David Wilcox who wrote the summary for me!)

This report presents a challenging picture of the future for voluntary and community organisations (VCOs) aiming to deliver public services in new ways, using ICT. On the one hand users will have increasingly high expectations of how information and services should be available online, based in part on their retail experience. In addition, national and local Government will make online service a higher proportion of the mix of media channels available to citizens. These customer-user-citizens may be using their own phones, cameras and computers to contribute to the online world, and be unwilling to accept passively what is on offer if it doesn’t meet their needs. They will have louder voices.

On the other hand, the storage and management of data behind online services requires an additional set of organisational and technical skills. There will be pressure on organisations to be in many places, not just on their own site. Once started, interactive, distributed service can’t be interrupted.

Is it going to be worth it?

 

The world of Web 2.0 is daunting enough in its vocabulary: blogs, wikis, RSS, tags, podcasts, widgets. Yet for organisations prepared to explore not just the tools but the collaborative culture that they can support, there could be substantial rewards.

The case studies in this report provide practical examples of how interactive media is being used now, sometimes with relative low investment, and often developed by small groups.

  • Patient Opinion is a forum that provides ‘an architecture of participation’, through which patients can share experience, gain support, and provide insights into the ways in which services can be improved. It was created by a GP, Paul Hodgkin.
  • Experts Online has moved from a ‘come to our site’ service to ‘we’ll create a widget-window embedded in your site’, greatly increasing take-up of advice.
  • A small group of social entrepreneurs bid for a £1.2 million Government contract by inviting anyone interested to help write the proposal in public. They were shortlisted.
  • United Response use videophones to connect support workers and those they are helping. This doesn’t replace all face-to-face contact, but enriches the care menu.

The report identifies some common themes underlying these stories. Technologies are gaining a foothold in service delivery, and driving transformations, because of several characteristics.

  • They generate, aggregate and store data. E-mail leaves data trails in ways that other conversations don’t. Personal data collected for one service can be shared with another. While each instance can offer benefits, they raise issues of ethics, standards and procedures.
  • ICT allows a personalised experience. Data collection, if properly handled, can enable organisations to provide tailored services and be more responsive to the needs of users.
  • Communication technologies help people to network more easily, making new contacts and establishing their own exchange mechanisms. If organisations don’t provide these opportunities, they may be derided or by-passed.
  • Effective service delivery requires an alliance between customer/users, suppliers and investors. ICT can support open and collaborative cultures, provided organisations are prepared to work closely with stakeholders and each other.
  • The behind-the-scenes back-office processes needed for service delivery can be mechanised through improved data recording and processing. So too can some front desk services - although users will still assert differing preferences for a mix of face-to-face, phone and online channels.
  • Improved access to information is one of the most widely-recognised potential benefits of ICT. However, VCOs must ensure they do not disadvantage those not able or willing to use online services.

Beyond the changes that ICT brings to existing ways of doing things, they also offer the possibility of entirely new services. They enable the development of call centres and online self-help; remote support by professionals; peer-to-peer support; and the co-creation of services. Some of these display a move away from centralised to decentralised distribution and the need for changes in control systems and organisational procedures.

We can see from the case studies, transformations and examples of new services a range of opportunities and risks:

Opportunities

 

  • Providing more personalised and comprehensive services to users
  • Enabling services users to support each other
  • Providing new channels for user feedback
  • Improving back-office systems
  • Developing innovative services through more open collaborations

Risks

 

  • Organisations may find it difficult to make the changes in procedures and culture needed for ICT-enabled services
  • Data management presents difficult challenges of privacy and security
  • The wide range of preferences among users for face-to-face, phone and online services may mean organisations are over-stretched in trying to provide additional channels
  • Service commissioners may not see VCOs as able to raise to these challenges and are unwilling to award contracts

Overall the report concludes that there is a good fit between the opportunities provided by ICT and the values and delivery modes that may characterise the voluntary and community sector - user-led and engaged, flexible and responsive, provided mutually or given for no expectation of return. There are challenges - but ICT represents one of the most feasible routes to sustainability in service delivery.

However, while some of the changes brought by ICT are incremental, and consequently relatively easy to accommodate, others may be disruptive.  Users are already organising services for themselves, and complaining more effectively if offerings are poor.

VCOs have the opportunity to be in the fore-front of developing more user-centric services.   If they don’t, they may find they lose their customers, their contracts and their funding.

 

Last updated at 15:08 Mon 18/May/09.
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