The impact of ICT on the design and delivery of public services

Public service reform is high on the political agenda and the role of the VCS in this process has been increasingly recognised.  At the heart of the debate around transforming public services, is the need to engage better with citizens, and to ensure that they have both choice and voice.  ICT can provide those commissioning and delivering services with useful tools to improve public services and can enable much better user engagement, by not just allowing citizens to easily access information about services, but by moving beyond this to allow a conversation to develop between service users and service providers.  However, ICT can also raise challenges and without adequate understanding, organisations may not be able to exploit its full potential.

Delivering services

ICT can enable the delivery of services in new or improved ways.  For instance, many library users can now renew their books and pay their fines online or over the telephone.  Although many services will continue to be delivered in the same way – nurses will continue to administer flu jabs – ICT could facilitate access to the service, i.e. users may use the internet to easily find out whether they need a jab, where they can get one and allow them to book an appointment.  For instance, NHSdirect.nhs.uk includes a self-help guide, answers to common health questions and details of users’ nearest health services, and a telephone service is available for those with immediate health concerns. 

At times it will be possible to combine new technologies with traditional contact methods.  The Net Neighbours scheme, involves a volunteer ordering groceries for an elderly person whilst checking up on their wellbeing by: phoning the client to get their shopping list and chat; ordering the groceries and paying for them through an online service; and then phoning to check the order has been received.

Co-design of services

To best meet the needs of users, services must be effectively designed, taking into account the views of users at the design stage.  ICT can play a role in democratising innovation by providing information and allowing users to feed in their views, via mechanisms such as online surveys, blogs and forums.  These technologies have made it much easier for organisations to facilitate an ongoing dialogue with users about the services they receive and how they could be improved. This can range from simple consultation to more collaborative processes of design (see sharing innovation below).

Empowering citizen-consumers

Web technologies, such as forums and blogs, have also made it much easer for individuals to publish their thoughts online and make their voices heard without detailed technical knowledge, either directly or through an intermediary.  For instance, patientopinion.com allows NHS patients to share their experiences of healthcare and to rate them based on criteria such as standard of medical care.  This facilitates a changing power relationship between service users and service deliverers: where users are not happy to simply accept what is given, but can compare different service providers and voice dissatisfaction publicly. 

Sharing innovation

OpenSource thinking, where organisations and users freely share knowledge and information over the internet is important in spreading innovation in public service design.  Other organisations are able to access this knowledge and information, expand it and remix it to meet their local needs.  This allows good and bad practice to be shared and prevents organisations using resources to reinvent the wheel.  OpenSource thinking also allows organisations to innovate through crowdsourcing, where they use their networks of users, rather than paid professionals, to help develop and test ideas for public services.  This can allow services to be better designed around the needs of users.

However there are several barriers to OpenSource thinking.  Organisations may want to maintain their intellectual property, allowing them to gain credit and potentially generate revenue, for instance, by selling a successful model as a franchise.  And if only a few organisations OpenSource their thinking, they may be disadvantaged as others benefit from their ideas, but do not share their ideas in return.  Maintaining credit for innovation may be particularly important as competition for public service contracts becomes more intense.

Data management

ICT can allow better Customer Relationship Management, where public service deliverers are not necessarily collecting more data, but analysing and using data more effectively to meet user needs.  This can result in smarter services that give users the information and support that they need based on who they are.  For example, some Energy Efficiency Advice Centres use a password protected, online database system to record information each time a user makes contact with them.  This allows them to check what advice and services returning users have already received.  Web based systems can also allow organisations that are spread over several sites or who use remote workers to easily share and access information.  Taken a step further, if information were to be shared between agencies, this could allow more joined-up services.  Similar to book recommendations on amazon.com, users could be recommended that since you used service x, you may also find service y useful.

However, Customer Relationship Management also raises questions about privacy and ownership.  What data is being stored, how is it used and by whom?  Public suspicion exists around ICT and data storage, partly because ICT is not fully understood but also due to power relationships.  For example, an ID card where you could review what’s on the card and make corrections, gives more power to users and would be viewed with less suspicion that a card that identifies you on a central database which you cannot access and that belongs to someone else.  Data use and storage can also be very difficult for organisations.  Although new web technologies are allowing greater user feedback, it can be difficult to collate this feedback so that it can be used to improve services.  However, to develop a relationship with users, it is important that they feel data is collected for a credible reason and that feedback is taken into account.

Back office processes

The systems and processes behind service delivery can also benefit from ICT.  Mobile technologies, such as mobile phones, PDAs and laptops, mean that remote and mobile workers can stay in contact with the main office and allow staff to access and record information at the point of need.  They also have the potential to support staff to deliver services.  For instance, could PDAs be used to help staff collect outcomes data in the same way that a shop worker may use one to check stock levels?

Collaborative working

One key trend in service delivery is greater collaborative working in order to achieve better efficiency and joined up services.  ICT can play a role in allowing greater communication and sharing of information, not just between public service deliverers, but also with users.  For example, FixMyStreet.com allows users to view, discuss and report local problems such as fly tipping, which are sent to the council on their behalf.  For organisations working in partnership, examples include Google docs, which allows agreed users to edit shared documents which are accessible via the internet.  This does however raise data protection issues – if you are entering your data into a 3rd party website, who owns the data?  Organisations may also encounter integration issues when trying to share or combine systems.

Reaching users

Just as everyone has the right to receive appropriate public services, effective service design must engage the breadth of society.  Care must be taken that those who are unable or unwilling to access the internet, due to lack of physical access, skills, confidence or desire, are not digitally excluded from the debate on public services.  However, the internet can also allow access to ‘hard to reach’ individuals by transgressing geographical boundaries to bring together individuals with niche interests giving them a stronger voice.  Online social networks may allow new individuals to be included, and may be increasingly important for younger generations, for whom the internet is the natural mode of communication.  It is also important to look beyond using computers and to consider other technologies such as mobile phones and digital television.  Many ‘hard to reach’ individuals may be reached through the ‘red button’.

Conclusion

This discussion has explored how ICT can help improve public services through: facilitating co-design of services including with ‘hard-to-reach individuals; sharing innovation; improving delivery; allowing organisations to manage users’ data to better meet their needs; simplifying back office processes and supporting collaborative working.  Where used appropriately ICT can be adapted for local needs and circumstances and VCOs should not fear the barriers of unwieldy large systems such as that of the NHS.  However, there are barriers.  Organisations will need to be able to use ICT that the public knows and understands, they may grapple with new data protection issues and new uses of ICT will cause disruption.  Perhaps the most important thing is for organisations to keep their users at the forefront.  To step back from ICT and ask how it can empower people, using technology not as the solution, but as a tool to solve problems faster and better.

This article is a think piece intended to kick-start discussion for a larger piece of work. We are currently researching the impact of ICT on the voluntary and community sector. 

Last updated at 15:08 Mon 18/May/09.
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We’re looking into how we could use tools like podcasts as a vehicle for information and limited advice delivery and we have some examples on our website.

I’ve been considering how we might use social networks but I have concerns about some of their terms of service which effectively seem to assign to them any and all rights to do whatever they like with any content that is uploaded, which I am a little wary of in regard of our information and how it might be represented in other ways and also what might develop should a service provider be taken over by another organisation.

Similarly, I’ve thought about how we might use environments like Second Life, but identity and confidentiality are key and critical factors in our dealings with clients and I can’t see how we can securely establish and maintain those in such an environment.

Megan 's picture

Megan

Third Sector Foresight

Hi Tony. Many thanks for the comment. Your ideas about using podcasts sound really interesting – I’d like to find out more about that as I work on the report I’m writing on this topic.

I think you’re right to be concerned about identity and confidentiality in relation to social networks. This is a concern that is under-recognised generally I think, but it is obviously crucial when talking about a field of work like giving and sharing advice.
I think that the power of social networks in advice is something worth thinking about though, as you have been. In our work with Advice UK on the future of the advice sector we talked about the potential power of new technologies to facilitate peer support. Arising from that we considered concerns about the quality or credibility of such information and questioned whose information people will trust in the future (thinking about drivers on declining deference and trust in institutions, as well as the growth of recommendations and peer information in online environments). Identity and privacy are issues we didn’t touch on, but an important addition I think.

PS I’ve copied this to the forum on the advice sector…

Hi Megan,

Interestingly, Dan York’s just blogged about a video from the Privacy Commissioner of Canada about “Privacy and Social Networks”, the link to the blog post is http://www.disruptiveconversations.com/2007/11/privacy-and-soc.html

Megan 's picture

Megan

Third Sector Foresight

Thanks Tony, I’ll take a look. I wonder if we need a driver on the site about privacy issues, either specifically to do with social networking, or more broadly (eg ID cards?)

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