Service deliveryDigital Customer ServiceHow to improve public services and how govtech can enable this

How to improve public services and how govtech can enable this

How can organisations improve public services, how can govtech enable this and who's successfully using digital tools to drive the customer experience and service delivery forward?

When Francis Maude took over as Cabinet Office Minister in 2010 under the coalition, he pledged to transform central government and improve public services using technology to do so.

The aim of the reform plan was to drastically cut costs while boosting efficiency at the same time – and on stepping down in 2015, Maude claimed he had saved the taxpayer £14 billion, after shrinking the civil service by a fifth due to cutting the equivalent of 90,000 jobs.

So just where is this legacy today? Has the promised transformation taken root, not just in central government but across the public sector in all its forms? Rob Anderson, principal analyst for central government at research firm GlobalData, believes the picture is a mixed one. “Things aren’t where people hoped they would be due to a lack of investment,” he says. “The transformation agenda has been put on the backburner due to austerity, and latterly because all the focus has been on Brexit.”

This scenario has resulted in public authorities struggling to deliver on the promise of ‘joined up government’, thereby keeping up with the expectations of Millennials in terms of accessing public services online. Local authorities are finding it particularly hard here due to the complexity of their businesses combined with the fact that many have faced swingeing budget cuts.

Another key issue is that it can be tricky to build a business case for big transformational programmes, particularly as funding is usually allocated on a project-by-project basis.

But this scenario “tends to lead to a lack of joined-up thinking and a failure to look at the big picture,” Anderson points out. “So people will do a little project, but the technology will often not be reused for anything else.”

Hoping to improve public services

To make matters worse, many public authorities have not seen the savings expected from shifting services online. Not only has it cost them money to introduce new applications, but it has not been possible to switch off back-end, legacy systems, which still require maintenance. Some are simply too specialised and integral to the business, while not all citizens are digitally literate as yet.

In central government, meanwhile, the situation has not been helped by a lack of strong leadership. The Government Digital Service (GDS) that Maude set up to push through digital transformation has succeeded in moving departmental IT teams to a more agile way of working. But since he left, “no one has picked up the baton, and there doesn’t appear to be anyone taking the lead in driving this agenda”, Anderson says.

At local authority level, on the other hand, the disparate nature of organisations and the bodies that represent them, such as the Local Government Association and Socitm, mean there is no single, central point from which to push through a nationwide transformation agenda.

But the “one bright light” across the wider public sector is health. Secretary of State Matthew Hancock, who was formerly at the Cabinet Office and who understands the transformation agenda, is “talking a good game” and “sees technology as introducing positive change”, Anderson indicates. For example, NHS Digital, which is the health equivalent of GDS, is in the process of working with a range of Global Digital Exemplars to roll out good practice to other Trusts during 2020.

Put another way, Anderson ultimately believes that while the public sector is “generally doing OK in delivering front-end digital services, it’s at the back end where there are problems due to the nature and cost of legacy systems, which means that services aren’t as joined up as they should be”.

Nonetheless, there are still examples of good practice where organisations are using digital to improve public services. Here are three organisations that have succeeded in using technology to deliver services more cost-effectively:

1. Aylesbury Vale District Council

A forward-thinking chief executive combined with an understanding that austerity was only going to get worse led Aylesbury Vale District Council to start planning its IT transformation programme as far back as 2010.

One of the key initial planks of the underlying strategy, which was completed by 2013, was to move all of its back-end systems to the cloud, which included migrating to TechnologyOne’s OneCouncil system to streamline operations.

As a result of the move, says Maryvonne Hassall, the Council’s IT strategy manager, by 2016, it was no longer about “future-proofing technical components to enable the business to be future-ready”. Instead it was about introducing a digital strategy named ‘Connected Knowledge’ to “turn data into useful information, and then knowledge, to improve public services for customers”.

“Our digital strategy puts the customer at the heart of everything we do as it means they can access services in the way they want to, using any device they choose via a browser – and that includes staff,” Hassall says.

This integration takes place through the Connected Knowledge platform. It acts as a tool to integrate disparate backend cloud systems and provide a single customer record, which staff can access via a web page no matter which channel customers use to interact with the Council. It also means that “we’re able to pre-empt those most likely to need extra help,” Hassall adds.

Because the organisation’s current programme consists of 29 separate projects though, it has adopted a three-pronged approach to governance in order to deal with the overall complexity more effectively.

The first prong is a transformation stream, which handles core business systems to ensure they deliver the right service to customers. The second focuses on legacy IT and ensures that appropriate networks, security and devices are in place and that old systems are switched off where possible.

The final strand concerns innovation. A specific portion of the budget is put aside to promote it and new initiatives do not require a business case, although limitations are set in terms of cost and time. Examples of success stories here include the introduction of an Amazon Alexa-based ‘skill’ for residents who own Alexa-enabled devices. The app handles nine different transactions using voice commands, which include asking how to pay council tax and requesting clinical waste collection.

“I can see we’ve turned a corner and we’d be in a much worse place if we hadn’t done all of this,” says Hassall. “We’d have been having conversations about headcount cuts, paring back more services where they weren’t considered necessary and starting to under-deliver in terms of customer service, but we’ve absolutely turned away from that.”

2. Welsh Revenue Authority

When the Welsh Revenue Authority (WRA) was set up in October 2017, it adopted a cloud-first approach to IT both to enable it to start operating within a short timeframe and to provide it with the flexibility to grow.

The WRA was created by the Welsh Government to manage and collect the country’s first devolved taxes: the Land Transaction Tax, which replaced England’s Stamp Duty Land Tax as of 1 April 2018, and the Landfill Disposal Tax, which took over from the Landfill Tax.

But as the aim in creating the tax authority was to prevent Welsh Ministers from gaining direct access to taxpayers’ personal information, it was also unable to use any of the Government’s systems. This meant that the WRA’s IT infrastructure had to be created from scratch – and it consists of no physical systems at all.

Instead its virtual infrastructure includes a bespoke Software-as-a-Service-based bi-lingual digital tax collection and management system that was written by software development firm Kainos and runs on Microsoft’s Azure platform. The organisation’s telephony system is also based on Microsoft’s Sykpe for Business.

Anthony Pritchard, the WRA’s head of digital and technology, said that without taking a cloud-based approach to the challenge, it would have been “very problematic” to set up, support and maintain multiple data centres within the nine-months allotted timescale, particularly due to a requirement for specialist skillsets that are not always easy to find.

Another consideration was that the organisation, which employs 70 people, acted as a cloud “pilot project” for the Welsh Government itself, which is “generally moving in a cloud direction”. As a result, “we’ve been a very useful experiment for it”, Pritchard said.

Despite the speedy implementation of the tax collection system, which has so far handled about 30,000 Land Tax transactions, it has received satisfaction scores of 85% based on the input of about 5,370 service users. Over the next four years, estimates are that the WRA will handle a total of £1 billion in taxes, despite having an IT department of only three, one of which includes Pritchard.

“But we don’t need a big team as we aren’t managing infrastructure any more,” he says. “For us, it’s about digital services, which are much more flexible.”

3. Ministry of Justice

In response to the introduction of austerity and a directive from the Government to cut costs, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) focused on the huge amount of money spent on using paper in the trial process.

It had identified that moving paper around the justice system was one of its single, biggest expenses. While each sheet only costs about half a penny to buy, by the time it has been printed, photocopied, sent by courier to interested parties such as barristers, and finally shredded, the cost rises to more like £0.50.

As the criminal justice system was using a million sheets of paper every day though, the equivalent of a pile as tall as London’s Shard was being created every three weeks.

But in March 2015, a year or so before the start of the ill-fated £1.2 billion modernisation programme introduced by Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS), the bid to implement a Digital Case System in every criminal court across England and Wales was won by CaseLines.

The 12-month project was jointly managed by the CPS and HMCTS and enables members of the court to upload, access, annotate and present case documents without needing to resort to paper. It has now been rolled out across both country’s Crown Courts as well as four family courts and one tribunal.

In the case of the criminal courts at least, the savings made on administering paper as a result of using the cloud-based system have added up to about £500,000 per day. But there have also been other spin-off benefits too.

Paul Sachs, CaseLines’ founder and chief technology officer, explains: “The number of hearings has reduced by 50% as people are now seeing the evidence against them earlier and so are making more appropriate decisions about which way to plead.”

In the past, the only way to see the evidence was to attend court, but the speed with which case documents can now be entered into the system means they are available beforehand. As a result, defendants either tend to plead guilty if they see the case against them is overwhelming or not guilty if it is not so strong.

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