TRANSFORMING PUBLIC SERVICES THROUGH BETTER USE OF DIGITAL
Whilst the business community is constantly embracing the advantages of digital technologies to improve productivity and efficiency, there is a general acceptance that more could be done by the public sector to follow their lead, especially at a time when public expenditure is being reduced.
The good news is that a survey earlier this year by Ipsos showed that 58 per cent of UK citizens recognised the positive impact digital is having on the quality of public services.
However, whilst three quarters said government should press ahead with plans to digitise public services, 47 per cent did not believe the public sector had the necessary skills to make progress on this issue.
That is why a report this week is to be welcomed as the first step in hopefully closing the gap between what citizens in Wales want and what is currently being delivered by the private sector.
“System Reboot: Transforming public services through better use of digital” is a long overdue study from an expert panel for the Welsh Government chaired by the Assembly Member for Llanelli, Lee Waters. Its aim was to provide external advice and challenge on transforming public services through better use of digital, and to come up with recommendations to help shape the next steps.
It’s an excellent beginning to what will be a critical agenda in Wales over the next decade and I would urge everyone working in public services in wales to read it this comprehensive 58 page report from cover to cover and to add to the debate where possible.
It is full of excellent examples of where public services are doing well in this area but also where, more critically, then can be room for improvement. Given the brevity of this column, it is impossible to cover everything in detail so I shall focus instead on the main recommendations and their implications for public services in Wales.
The first recommendation is that public services should be designed around the needs of the user i.e. that policies and systems should be citizen centric and designed around those needs. Unlike many consumer businesses, public bodies in Wales do not provide a seamless end to end digital transaction for all requests and a movement towards such an approach to could transform the delivery of public services in Wales.
The second is to establish a clear digital leadership in Wales by having a new Minister responsible for a new Digital Strategy supported by a Chief Digital Officer with a mandate for change and an advisory group made up of those with experience and expertise across a range of specialisms required to make digital a success.
This approach can then be rolled out across the rest of Wales through the appointment of a digital leader within each public service body who is empowered with clear permissions and responsibilities to effect change and who can be held responsible for delivery.
Another key element is a commitment to user centred design through the adoption of a set of service standards, building from experiences elsewhere across the UK. These standards would be regularly assessed so that quality is improved across the public sector.
As noted earlier, one of the concerns of the public over the adoption of digital technologies is that civil servants and others does not have the skills in place to do this properly.
The first step in addressing this issue is to identify the digital skills and capability gaps across the Welsh public sector and develop a plan to close them, especially in providing the training and support needed. This can be supplemented through a range of positive interventions, including the creation of communities of practice, reviewing government IT contracts to identify new ways of working with the private sector and examining how procurement frameworks can create opportunities for the development of digital skills and capabilities.
Clearly, none of the above can be done without an incentive to public services and it is critical, even at a time of shrinking budgets, that the Welsh Government provides additional, central investment to new digital services as this will no doubt make a substantial return over time.
However, the quid quo pro for this funding is that there must be full alignment by public bodies with a key set of agreed digital principles and standards that encourage efficiency through championing user led design whilst maximising economies of scale.
And there is no time to waste in adopting this critical digital approach to public services. Indeed, whilst the civil service has been accused of sometime being as rapid as a somnambulistic snail in implementing government policy, there must be a clear and ambitious timetable for change for this agenda demonstrating pace and scale with clear signposts and opportunities for re-evaluating progress at key milestones.
Therefore, with the digital world increasingly affecting all aspects of our personal lives from holidays to leisure to information, it is critical that the public sector also steps up to the mark to provide the same level of service that we would expect from any private sector provider. This report by Lee Waters and the ministerial taskforce is the first important step in achieving that and I hope that the new Welsh Government will now take this forward urgently as part of its agenda for Wales.