By Philip Craig, Government Sector Strategy Director at Sopra Steria
One of the often-quoted benefits of digital transformation is the improvement in the way departments interact with citizens and business by sharing systems and data to streamline services. But the reality often falls short of expectations.
Why are public services so siloed?
The current departmental structure brings together and manages most areas of government business through a top down, vertical management structure. This approach provides a single, clear line of accountability and keeps tight control over resources. However, vertical structures also have many disadvantages:
- Where issues or problems cut across departmental boundaries and budgets, policymakers can fail to look at problems from the perspective of the service user
- Departments can sometimes overlook the importance of local authorities, who have their own priorities and lines of accountability
- There are obstacles to delivering effective cross cutting working on the ground, where there are complex responsibilities, relationships and risk incentives
So how do we join up government?
My experience is that cross cutting interventions work best when government makes clear their priorities and when champions at the highest level have a lasting effect on behaviour.
With these supportive conditions, the adoption of digital technologies will enable cross-cutting work.
Emphasis in the UK government is now rightly focussed on how digital can support transformation through, for example, the creation of shared components (such as Verify, Pay and Notify) and common workplace tools. The common link is, of course, information technology: co-ordination involving multiple providers depends on compatible IT systems and common data collection and architectures.
But perhaps just as significantly, digital approaches can promote dialogue with citizens and service users as well.
First people want to be involved in shaping services, particularly at a local level, not just choosing between them. Government needs to provide digital channels for information and views to reach them, which are not constrained to departmental silos. Open source methods that involve users in designing services have become commonplace in business and have always been common in civil society.
Second, government needs to shift the quality of the relationship between citizens and the state, so services are shaped around the individual’s needs rather than being too standardised. Personalised services can typically involve having someone – a teacher or a doctor – to talk to face to face but it could also mean a different curriculum and programme for every pupil, or a different care options for every patient.
Where are we seeing the benefits of joined-up government?
The harbingers of the future can be found where governments face the most intense pressures, such as the health and social care service. An ageing population and changes in societal behaviour are contributing to a steady increase in complex, long-term health problems. The UK spends around £24 billion on disability and incapacity benefits for over 3.5 million working age people, while mental illness now accounts for over 30% of all GP consultations and 50% of follow up consultations.
Such conditions are not easily administered or treated either through a traditional clinical lens or prescriptions. Much of the care is provided by families and friends and is too expensive to be provided by formal structures and by highly paid doctors. A lot of the most important knowledge about how to handle these long-term conditions resides with other patients rather than just doctors.
So, part of the answer lies with giving people control over how money is spent and with support structured to meet their needs. This means giving service users direct power over money and new structures of advice, often through simple but powerful online platforms.
At its best, these approaches bridge the bottom-up and the top-down, paying attention to the worlds of daily experience rather than seeing people as abstract categories. Networks and platforms can help the state track behaviours, highlighting ‘what works’, and make it easier for people to band together and take control of their care.