Innovation and changeDigital TransformationThe need for balance in digitising public services

The need for balance in digitising public services

Afshin Attari, Director of Public Sector at Exponential-e would explore the delicate balance that needs to be struck in modernising public services

A couple of years after the launch of the iPhone in 2007, Apple famously pronounced “there’s an app for that.” A decade later, and what was originally a marketing slogan has never been truer. Whether booking a cab, ordering a takeaway, or buying clothes, the smartphone has revolutionised the way in which services are consumed today. Public services are no exception.

No longer are we willing to ring a doctor’s surgery multiple times at 8am in the hope of securing an appointment, or having to take a numbered ticket and wait for hours in a dreary council building until our number is called. Why should we, when the booming app economy means that can all be done via a mobile device at our leisure?

It isn’t quite that straightforward, unfortunately. The NHS and local authorities can’t just flick a switch and ‘make everything digital’. Regardless of the infrastructure considerations involved in such a transition, a proportion of the population isn’t sufficiently au fait with mobile apps; something the banking industry discovered to its cost recently. Services as fundamental as local government and the NHS simply can’t afford to alienate a single one of their users.

So, while there’s certainly an argument for modernising public services, a delicate balance must be struck for this process to be truly beneficial.

I before E – setting infrastructure first

Let’s take healthcare as an example. Digital has been at the heart of the government’s plans for the future of the NHS for some years now. ‘Harnessing technology and innovation’ is an important element of the NHS Five Year Forward View, for example, while NHS Digital was set up to transform the NHS and social care through digital technology. Only recently, the government published a policy paper setting out its vision for how digital, data and technology will shape the future of healthcare. As part of this overarching vision, the Health and Social Care Network (HSCN) was created to replace the legacy N3 data network with a more reliable, efficient and flexible infrastructure on which health and care organisations can access and exchange electronic information.

Getting the infrastructure right must be the first priority in the digital transformation of any public service. Before any applications are developed, any changes relayed to the public, and any new systems deployed, it’s essential to have a robust, reliable and always-accessible infrastructure in place in case of public services. This infrastructure needs to be able to cope with the demands of any new application. In the case of HSCN, this involves migrating the legacy environment – some of which dates back decades – to a full-fibre network.

Without such a sufficiently robust infrastructure in place, there can be no eHealth, no eCommerce. After all, a service can have the best applications on the market, but if its connectivity isn’t up to scratch, those applications will never deliver a satisfactory experience.

Digital is about more than technology

It may sound obvious, but there needs to be an appetite for consumers to make use of a new digital service. As good as the applications are, and the infrastructure that supports them, it must be remembered that not every member of the public will be willing or able to use them. As with the deployment of any new technology, a cultural change may be required, for which there needs to be an emphasis on education and training. Demonstrating the time that can be saved by booking appointments or repeat prescriptions via an app, rather than over the phone or face-to-face, may make it easier to win users round to the new way of working. This could take place through several channels; via free local authority sessions or web-based tasks are just two examples.

It’s important to bear different demographics in mind too, and make sure adequate channels are available to allow users of all ages and backgrounds to access the services they need. As we saw with the digital banking example, many older users will lack experience – and confidence – when it comes to using a mobile app. They will, however, be confident in using a phone to make calls. In a case such as this, combining existing systems with new, digital services can bridge the gap between old and new. A voice system that automatically connects with the EMIS electronic patient record system, for example, allowing GPs and receptionists to bring up the caller’s details as they speak, will improve efficiencies for frontline NHS staff, while providing a sense of comfort and continuity to patients.

A change is coming for public services

With smartphones and tablets a ubiquitous part of our everyday lives, mobile apps are redefining the way in which we engage with services. There is a – not unreasonable – expectation from consumers that we should be able to engage with public services such as our GP or our local council in the same way we do our bank or local hairdresser. And while ongoing government-led initiatives mean that the necessary transformation is taking place, it’s important not to put the cart before the horse.

Once a supportive infrastructure is in place, it’s important to ensure there is an appetite for change. Education and training in the potential benefits of the new technology will eventually bring about the cultural shift required. Sometimes – particularly in healthcare, where no-one can be left behind –it’s necessary to meet users in the middle, and find a way of working that works for everyone. Change is needed. But change doesn’t happen overnight. The capacity to support and enable that change is what will ultimately make it a success.

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