As with any spending review, the Autumn Statement brought mixed messages of generosity and austerity. George Osborne laid out plans to ‘ready for whatever storms lie ahead’ having decided that police cuts are to be frozen, the NHS and infrastructure are to receive more funding; but at the same time confirming that the £12 billion of welfare cuts announced earlier this year will also be delivered in full.
Underpinning all of these departmental announcements, a wider investment in digitising public services took centre stage. News of the £450 million injection in to Government Digital Services was received with huge applause. Thankfully this suggests there that is common cross-party understanding that this move is vital to the goal of delivering sustainable and affordable public services, and modernising archaic and paper based processes.
While the announcement of a fully digitised tax system is promising, it is only the tip of the iceberg of what needs to be done to deliver a smarter digital government. Thus, while we should celebrate the investment, it’s now important that we fully use what we have been given, and consider the following:
- New digital investment must stretch beyond central government to regional and local services – Government Digital Services is a central government agency, and has delivered some fantastic results. Since October 2013 it’s worked to consistently raise the use of digital services. Now the Carer’s Allowance and Pay As You Earn transaction services are primarily accessed through digital routes. But these successes are yet to reach a local level, where the benefits of digitalisation are perhaps needed the most after budget cuts averaging a drop in 23.4% per person. Recent surveys suggest that two thirds of UK councils are still offering less than half of services online. Better financial support and guidance must be given to help them continue digitising their way to better customer experience and reduced operational costs.
- Digitisation cannot replace human interaction completely – While it may be tempting to assume that EVERYTHING should be digitised, it’s not always appropriate. I am strongly against so-called digital-only strategies, as services must be tailored to suit the needs of the community and the specific circumstances of the exchange. When dealing with more sensitive inquiries, such as those around social services, face-to-face or over-the-phone interactions should be the go-to channels. Achieving this channel nirvana will require persistent proactive engagement with the public, promoting the benefits and educating against misconceptions. By effectively monitoring how services are used, public sector organisations can continue to adapt and evolve their services to drive greater efficiencies and smarter engagement with citizens. It’s all very well investing in technology, but if nobody is actually making use of the technology in place, it was all for nothing. We’ve seen this in other sectors, such as the retail sector with the acceptance of Amazon, so encouraging a change in customer behaviour towards these government digital services, will be essential to their success.
- Supporting multi-channel services appropriately – The outcome from the increased budget categorically must be that digital services become easier to use. Making services available online is one thing, but getting citizens to actually use them is another and so is making them a user-friendly experience. Providing support when needed is crucial to this. Contact centre and support staff must be able to guide citizens through whichever channel is appropriate, digital or otherwise. This will require additional investment in upskilling employees, as well as a cultural shift. Both are as important as investing in the technology itself. Digitisation is about a lot more than just buying more “stuff”.
It’s clear that, while the spending review has laid some strong foundations in bringing the government into the digital age, throwing money at the problem is simply not going to deliver the results needed. For the benefits of the funding to be most apparent, an in-depth understanding of the citizens the technology will be reaching is integral. From understanding the difference between central and local government to helping new users navigate technology, there is a long road ahead to a truly digital public sector; but if achieved, the benefits will far outweigh the costs.
By David Moody, VP and Global Practice Leader, Government and Public Sector, Verint