At the end of October I went to a conference in Birmingham about ‘delivering public services for less’, which looked to digital technology for the answer to delivering more efficient public services for less money. It seems to me, though, that it’s a lot more complicated than most people want to admit.
The strapline on the Beyond 2010 conference programme was ‘More for less’, which was challenged by one or two of the speakers. In the words of Robert Hardy, of Robert Hardy Consulting: “It’s not more for less, and it’s not less for less: it’s different for less”. In other words, we shouldn’t delude ourselves that technology will somehow allow us miraculously to squeeze more out of existing models with less expenditure: a radical change of culture is required.
That was refreshing, but on the whole it felt that radical change was being expected to come from the adoption of technology rather than being the driving force for it.
There was a lot of talk (particularly in light of the recent Comprehensive Spending Review) of opportunities to bring about these radical changes and efficiencies to public service delivery through the adoption of digital technologies.
Unfortunately I didn’t hear much, over the course of two days, that hasn’t been said pretty continuously for at least the past decade. Back in the late 1990s I was sat in meetings organised by government departments, discussing how technology was going to solve the issues of voter turnout and simultaneously bring down administration costs; little has changed. While the conference speakers seemed oblivious to this, they did seem to believe what they were saying; unfortunately my experience doesn’t tell me that miraculous savings are made by relying on technology, and it certainly doesn’t fill me with confidence that any of them have even half-grasped the challenges they face in transforming service delivery through technology.
Inefficiency is a human trait (or ‘failing’, if you really must): organisations and systems are only as efficient as the human beings running them. And no matter how organised someone is, none of us is a robot: we all make errors of judgment and we all have some days that are better than others. So the inefficiencies of people create complex systems, which in turn exacerbate the problem; if a person is inefficient I expect it’s generally because something about the system allows or encourages them to be. My limited experience suggests that all systems are inefficient but that larger ones are less able to be flexible and responsive. (An example of that might be where an organisation grows because it needs extra capacity to respond to its audience effectively, but at the same time loses valuable internal networks as it becomes less informal.)
And what is meant by ‘efficiency’ anyway, and who decides that? For it to mean anything at all requires everyone in the organisation to be working within the same parameters, which to be set will have to be determined somehow (probably by targets and measurements). And those parameters are themselves the product of the very same inefficient system that they are trying to address.
So how do you safeguard against that? I think skills are the key: if an organisation or system contains the appropriate skills, then human behaviour can be managed and capitalised on effectively. It would seem to me that skills are of fundamental importance if we hope to see such major changes to public service delivery as are being called for. And not just those skills required for using the new tools at our disposal, but skills for every aspect of public life. If we want radical change in the provision of public services, someone in any given organisation needs to champion that and enable it to happen. That in itself requires skills: skills for understanding the nature of the task, for managing people, for identifying issues and solutions, etc; skills even for identifying necessary skills in the first place (a tricky one when you’re at the top of the pyramid). No matter how flat an organisation, there will always be people where the buck stops; if these individuals don’t have the skills to manage the change that people are calling for then it doesn’t matter if everyone else is skilled up to the eyeballs, the exercise will be doomed to fail.
Yet skills were hardly mentioned during this conference.
There was also a noticeable lack of attention paid to other areas of policy, with little acknowledgement that these massive challenges to public services are not confined to their own protective bubble. Formal education, for example, wasn’t discussed as a key component of IT skills development, and yet uncertainty currently surrounds the nature of ICT in the National Curriculum; interrogating and understanding the implications – both apparent and hidden – of all the public data we’re being offered requires skills that currently are tied to the citizenship curriculum, yet there are fears for the future of citizenship too.
Digital innovation in the public realm requires all sorts of other skills, and links across lots of policy areas. In order to for the impending upheaval of public service delivery to have any positive impact, in my opinion, the decision-makers in that process need to be careful not to become blinded by the promises of well-meaning but often excitable digital enthusiasts.
Many thanks to Paul Clarke for his support in writing this.