Some thoughts both the challenges & opportunities of all things public sector digital media.
The Government today published its digital strategy. Tom Loosemore has also summarised how the strategy was put together in this blogpost.
What are the things that stand out?
- Saving money
- Improving public service delivery
- Improving policy making
- Improving the civil service
Cost will inevitably be a driver in an economic climate such as this. That said, when I took Puffles to visit the Government Digital Service earlier this year, the statistics they had on financial costs of engaging with the public, the numbers were striking – with face-to-face and paper-based things being considerably more expensive than processing things online. For paper-based things this bears out in my own experience working in banking in the late 1990s. It almost seems quaint now that firms would post or fax the foreign currency payments they wanted to make to firms abroad, meaning that junior bank clerks such as myself would have to decipher the often bad hand writing and spend our time inputting data. It was only in the final couple of months that they started experimenting with the internet – something many of us now take for granted with internet banking. It’s those lessons that Whitehall is looking to learn from so as to apply them to the wider public sector.
“What sort of public services would I want to engage Whitehall with?”
HMRC, DfT, DWP, BIS, DEFRA, MoJ, and the Home Office cover around 90% of all central government transactions with the public and with businesses. I’m particularly interested in DWP – or rather through them, the Job Centre Plus because of my own experiences with them this time last year. Their computer systems were soooo last millennium at a time when I was doing everything on a smartphone. Some commented at the time that such systems were not set up for the likes of me, but given the massive hit so many people have taken from job losses, public services such as these are not there to serve people who choose to be there, but because they have to be there. (E.g. signing on and having the ‘regular interviews’ – one of the most depressing and disempowering experiences I have ever been through).
“But I don’t want to use a self-service checkout!”
This program is not without its risks. Digital natives such as myself all too often take for granted our familiarity with both the technology and the language that we use – risking leaving people behind. These can often be the very people public services are there to help.
As far as public service delivery is concerned, my view is that all things digital need to complement the people-facing element rather than replace them. The switch to all things digital may mean that there is a reduced demand over time for face-to-face services, but given that 16% of people in the UK have never used the internet before, it will take time and patience to make the transition.
“Computer says ‘no!'”
In admin world – in both public and private sector, all too often I have seen the most public-facing roles being the lowest paid and seen as the least skilled. I’ve never quite understood why this mindset has never really been challenged. My point here is that the structure of organisations will inevitably have to change, as will pay structures. This document will become one of the drivers for that change.
One of the risks the Government Digital Service faces is ‘modelling for mediocrity.’ Cabinet Office, The Treasury and The Foreign Office are able to recruit some of the brightest minds in the country to work for them. The problem with this is that inside the mini-bubbles within the Whitehall bubble, you can forget that beyond such white-hot pressure cooker environments, the world does not necessarily operate that way – nor can other organisations recruit and hold onto such talent en masse. As with banking, one of the concerns about London with the public sector is that it sucks up talent that might otherwise make a bigger impact beyond the M25. What do you do, for example, with an organisation that is unable to recruit top talent into its ranks? Or as may be more appropriate, what do you do with an organisation where much of the talent has left as a result of voluntary redundancies? This is where people management and learning & development increase in importance. For example, e-learning packages may not be suitable for an organisation that has a low level of digital skills.
In helping tackle this, in my view the GDS has been exemplary in allowing people from a wide variety of organisations to visit – and staying in touch with them through digital and social media. The impact the GDS has behind it is ‘brand name Cabinet Office’ – which automatically forces people in the public sector to sit up and take notice. This is what happened when Jane O’Loughlin came to visit Teacambs. All too often, civil servants in Whitehall underestimate the impact that a visit to somewhere outside of London, or an invitation from Whitehall to visit, can have. The difference here too – as with the various ‘camps’ that spring up, is that it’s people’s energy, enthusiasm and knowledge that matters, not job titles and grades.
The informed client/commissioner
All too often, the public sector has been anything but, which is why firms delivering public sector contracts or engaging in PFI schemes have been able to make huge profits. The section under digital leadership is really good to see. The challenge here is how you go about identifying and nurturing that talent. Do you teach your generalists how to get all technical or do you look towards technically competent staff and teach them about management and strategy? Or do you try and find a nice medium that covers both? My take is that some technically competent staff will show great potential for senior management roles that require competencies far beyond digital technical expertise, just as some generalists will show potential for learning all things digital and technical. Your approaches for each group however, won’t be the same. So what pathways should the civil service create for those different groups? I have my reservations about the Fast Stream route from my own experience and also given its overhaul.
Educating the senior managers too
Some may think this goes beyond the scope of the strategy, but I don’t think it does. What is unique about digital and social media is that you have younger generations who are far more familiar with how to use the technology (but not necessarily in a manner where they are safeguarding themselves or others) compared with the older senior managers charged with overseeing its implementation. This cuts across public, private, voluntary, large and small organisations.
- You’ve got people breaking laws they did not know were applicable to the technology they were using
- You’ve got organisations being forced onto social media because of firestorms that happened over the weekend as a result of people using technology that executives were otherwise completely unfamiliar with
- You’ve got organisations looking at their risk registers, now realising that a number of their contingencies dealing with PR-related risks are now completely obsolete
For them, this is quite a scary situation to be in. I remember the tale of one manager who retired not long after I started out in the civil service, who allegedly insisted his PA print out all of his emails for him to read. Perhaps with the dawn of emails you could get away with that, treating your electronic post in exactly the same way as you would your snail mail post. But the much shorter timeframes for digital and social media simply do not allow for this. Even now, I see politicians across Twitter demanding things be confirmed or retracted in a matter of hours. From a public sector perspective, how do you go about educating all of these senior managers without sending them all on expensive 1-2-1 ‘executive courses’?
Conversations with educational institutions and community groups
There are lots of people and community groups that offer basic social media training – I’m one of them. One of the things that I want to look at in Cambridge is whether we can get some sort of co-ordination in terms of what social media training and guidance we can offer to our community.
This perhaps is one of the things at a national level the GDS may want to look at – embedding digital skills into the various training and education frameworks. Not just for children, but for adults too.