Why digital government has more to deliver

September 12, 2014

Recent years have seen growing interest in the concept of digital government: using smarter technology and datasets to do more and better, for less. To a large degree, this has been driven by the need to save money – an immovable priority during a time of budget cuts and rising demand. But digital government was meant to be so much more than this. It promised fundamentally to enhance the public sector and its services, make them more responsive and more personalised to individuals’ needs. It would rebalance the relationship between people and government: revolution not evolution. To date, we have seen little of that. So what’s gone wrong?

It’s not about the technology

Far too often, policymakers talk about ‘going digital’ as though it were a procurement issue: the need to commission a new app, build an online transaction or digitise a form. In part, this can be attributed to the current vogue for making public services more user-friendly; to create an online experience as good as that offered by Amazon, Google or Facebook.

While that’s welcome, if it’s the whole story then we’ve missed the point entirely. Being user-centric is not just about improving the online transaction: it’s about redesigning the full end-to-end public service around what the citizen wants and needs. Digital government cannot simply bolt new technology onto old ways of working. The world’s most famous tech giants have been successful because they used innovation to create radically better ways of working. The public sector must do the same: starting by designing how it can work differently to better serve citizens, and then seek the technology that enables it. And for that, data is required.

The power of data

Data is the fuel of government. It’s what enables policy decisions to be evidenced-based; performance to be measured; and services to be targeted at areas of greatest need. The challenge here is that data delivers value through being shared and integrated, but government works in silos. Both within and between departments, agencies and local authorities, IT and data operate in silos, as do teams and processes.

Such fragmentation is a serious barrier to achieving better ways of working. As the local government sector seeks to save £12.4bn by 2020, shared services offer one means to save money. But shared services will always be limited without shared data. How can councils find opportunities to cooperate without knowing how the issues they address feature beyond their own boundaries? Many of the most pressing and expensive issues that the public sector tackles also require coordination between numerous departments and agencies at both central and local level. Think of inventions for troubled families, care for the elderly, or offender management. Effective, joined-up working is almost impossible without shared data.

Shared data

The benefits of shared data are especially evident in the case of former New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s Office of Policy and Strategic Planning. Michael Flowers, former director of analytics, led a team that analysed city data from various agencies to allocate public safety resources efficiently. Their work in inspecting illegal conversions (dwellings that have been unsafely divided into smaller units that were often fire hazards) demonstrates the power of data-driven decision-making.

New York City receives around 25,000 complaints about illegal conversion a year, but has only 200 inspectors to handle them. Flowers and his team approached the problem by starting with a list of the 900,000 properties the city oversees. They used datasets from 19 agencies, plus other information about the buildings and their locations. This meant combining data about everything from foreclosure proceedings, anomalies in utilities usage and construction date to ambulance visits, crime rates, and rodent complaints.

They compared this information against fire data, and developed a system which used correlations to determine where inspectors should head first. Prior to adopting this approach, only 13 per cent of cases resulted in vacate orders. Using the more aggressively data-driven analysis, inspectors were redeployed to investigate cases that were more likely to present a severe risk to safety. As a result, they are much more likely to be right first time: now 70 per cent of cases investigated warrant a vacate order.

This experience has highlighted how the systematic sharing of data sets between departments and agencies can help target limited resources, produce insights, and even prevent problems occurring in the first place.

Break down the silos

So what needs to be done here in the UK? The real benefits of digital government will never be achieved while different departments, agencies and local authorities each attempt their own, independent transformations. To solve the problem of fragmentation, the silos of government IT must be broken down by adopting open standards and common platforms across the public sector that allow data to be shared and analysed. We need to create mechanisms for government to source ideas and information from citizens, and not just distribute these back to them as open data. We need to ensure the public sector has the skills to derive meaning from that data and use it to identify better ways of working. We need to redesign services from the ground up if we are to create truly joined-up government.

In short, saving billions of pounds and radically improving citizens’ experience of government cannot be done just by putting a shiny new digital face on public services. Let’s stop tinkering around the edges and work to deliver what digital government was meant to be.

This blog originally featured in the September 2014 edition of Ethos journal

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