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The 2020 Public Services Trust Blog

Friday, June 4, 2010

Four obstacles in the face of the final frontier

By Charlotte Alldritt

The sheer breadth and complexity of information and technology policy became all too clear at 2020PST’s roundtable yesterday morning.  Leading officials and activists met to discuss the next stage of open government and online self-services.  This brought us into the territory of – amongst other things – the Coalition’s ‘new politics’ of transparency and accountability; cost efficiencies and cuts; social and digital inequalities and the prospect for more personalised, responsive, citizen-focussed public services. 

 Many, many important points were raised, but four in particular stood out for me:

  •  Culture in government, Whitehall and public services - lack of awareness/understanding of the power of online ‘self services’ to deliver high quality for less is the primary barrier.  There is often a presumption that many public services can only be provided face-to-face and alternatives are ‘too cheap’ to deliver quality outcomes and too risky to implement.  Similar arguments apply with regards to open data.  Determined leadership is vital, but the business case for online service delivery and open government needs to be made.  Only then can we expect to see ingrained cultural attitudes and practices begin to change.
  • Provider capture and vested interests – often there are strong incentives acting against the diversion of citizens to lower cost channels.  While models of funding which ‘follow the user’ can help to support choice and competition in public service delivery (in theory generating cost savings and increased quality), they encourage default face-to-face interaction when alternative channels might be more appropriate and cost efficient.
  • Scale – the issue of scale often brings to mind the age-old debates of local vs central procurement of IT systems, software and shared services (for example) and delivery/administration (e.g. housing benefit).  But it also demands we consider the level at which we are trying to engage users and achieve certain outcomes.  For instance, are we trying to enable communities – whether for a locality or other common cause – to work together more effectively via social networking?  Or transform national public service institutions and systems?  Do we need to employ different tactics and strategy to achieve both of these aims? 
  • Public voice – how can the public voice demanding online access to information and services be rallied to push government and providers?  How do we ensure (and reassure the public) that it is as easy and secure to log on to public services as it is to access internet banking? 

Much is already happening in response to many of these four points.  The progress of and the Coalition’s commitment to publishing  data online is a good start.  But the withdrawal of funding Professor Nigel Shadbolt and Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s web science institute is a major blow.  More than ever – at a time of cuts and cost savings – technology should not be thought about as an expensive ‘bolt-on’ in the hope of making bad services slightly better.  Not least because in practice this (by lack of coherent integration and design) often makes matters worse.  Instead, it’s about using existing and emerging (typically low-cost) communication technologies to enable citizens to work with public services in a way which enables better outcomes at lower cost. 

But I’m at risk of sounding too tech-evangelical.  What is needed is to build the evidence base and let the argument speak largely (and loudly) for itself.

Friday, April 23, 2010

A vision for 2020 information and technology: Part 2 – Criminal Justice

By Charlotte Alldritt

The year is 2020.  Over the past decade, simple online technologies have transformed the way we access data and information, hold public services to account and engage with government.  Transparency is the watchword of the day.  The ultimate prize? Renewed political legitimacy and public services finally fit for purpose.  In the second installment in this series, I look at how technology and information can inform the public about the real risks of crime they face  in their local area, and allow active dialogue between citizens and their criminal justice service. 

David Johnson is an elderly resident in a large town in the South West.  David has lived here for many years, but he has recently found it more difficult to get out and about to nearby shops and community facilities for fear of being victim to anti-social behaviour.  Unfortunately, low-level crime is increasing in David’s part of town and he is spending more and more time confined to his home. 

Crime Mapping has been around for over a decade, but now data from a range of sources can be mashed up 

David’s family have persuaded him to relocate closer to them.  One of the first steps in the search for a new home is to look up comparative crime rates in the local area. By accessing the local authority webpage, the Johnson family is linked to a local crime mapping site.  This site integrates data on reported crime, appeals to witnesses (building on the pioneering work of Viscero), criminal sentences and A&E data (which captures injuries caused through (typically violent) crime – as shown in BBC’s ‘The Truth About Crime’ in 2009).  It also hosts a forum for residents on anti-social behaviour (ASB).  The web forum allows citizens to talk to each other and to their Neighbourhood Policing Team about how safe they feel in their local area, ideas for how to tackle low-level crime and what measures they feel are working to tackle ASB.  This local crime mapping website is linked to the national CrimeMapper service, and features similar easy-to-read graphs showing detailed crime rates over time at street level.  This kind of information is reassuring to David and his family, who are able to search for properties within a safe area close to the shops and community activity centres.

Active dialogue between residents and their Neighbourhood Policing team without breaching citizen anonymity

The Neighbourhood Policing Team is active in cross-checking local residents’ concerns with reported anti-social behaviour.  They are keen to build a complete picture of where local residents feel most at risk of crime, why and how they might improve the situation.  This commitment encourages citizens to report ASB online using the Report It system (accessible via the same, single local authority website).  This system can be accessed and updated by the Neighbourhood Policing team and local police force so that patterns of repeat ASB can be identified and steps taken to protect victims.

In developing these systems for better information and active dialogue between citizens and police service, concerns about anonymity were taken very seriously.  The online residents’ forum on ASB is allows users to choose whether or not to share their identity.  All data is protected as stipulated by the Data Protection Act.  In order to avoid false or inadequate reports, there is an online video guide on the website that describes what constitutes anti-social behaviour, what kind of evidence must be gathered and presented, and what information on witness protection available.

Citizens can hold their local police service to account better through a simple online comparative performance tool

Finally, the local authority portal links to a single, national police service comparison website.  This has a dashboard for relative performance of all police forces across the country and, by enabling users to post their feedback and engage in discussion with HMIC, it builds on the beta version, MyPolice launched in March 2010.  Technology and information are helping to inform citizens, strengthens their relationship with the criminal justice system and gives them a greater sense of ownership within their local communities.  Once again, technology and information serve to enhance transparency, accountability and the quality of our public services.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A vision for 2020 information and technology: Part 1 – Education

By Charlotte Alldritt

The year is 2020.  Over the past decade, simple online technologies have transformed the way we access data and information, hold public services to account and engage with government.  Transparency is the watchword of the day.  The ultimate prize? Renewed political legitimacy and public services finally fit for purpose.  In the first of this series on the part technology and information have to play, I explore the potential for education. 

Susan is a mother of twins, living in London. Her children, James and Marsha, will be starting primary school next year. Each child has different learning and care requirements, with Marsha requiring extra support as she has special educational needs (SEN).

Online data to inform choice

Accessing the local authority webpage, Susan is directed to a GIS system and carries out a search for local primary schools based on her postcode. She personalises the search to showcase primaries with special needs facilities and tutorials. Susan is then able to access up-to-date information about every local school, including parent reviews on the facilities, teaching quality, ethos and atmosphere. Using an open database (with an accessible user interface linked to the local authority website), Susan can also compare data through a single comparative website – from Ofsted, the NHS, local authorities and other integrated service providers – to check for quality.  This would be the alpha version of Tim Berners-Lee’s  Digital Public has some other great examples – see pictured below.)


Power to verify personal data and information

Once Susan has applied online for her children’s primary school places, she is able to access the data held by the local authority about her and her children before it is transferred to their new schools. Using a Unique Identification Number and a password for each child, she will be able to make changes to data and information held on her children. For privacy purposes, only trained and security-cleared professionals will be able to crosscheck this information.  With Susan’s consent they may also refer to her family’s GP records (also accessible to Susan online and possibly via a third party – e.g. Microsoft’s HealthVault) if needed.

Cost-effective public services responsive to citizens’ needs

While none of the technology Susan is using is very new, Susan is now able to access a wealth of information that helps her to choose the best for her and her family.  In the wake of spending cuts after the 2009 recession, taxpayers could no longer afford to fund poor quality public services.  Armed with data and information, service users and professionals can assess whether they getting or delivering quality public services.  Susan can share this information with fellow parents online, talk to her peers, local leaders, MPs and officials via formal and informal feedback sites (similar to, for example, Kings Cross Local Environment or  She knows that her voice can make a difference.  Government and providers know they have to respond. 

Technology is integral, not an add-on

By now the internet is not a technology, but a way of being – it is part of the fabric of our lives; we communicate, socialise, create culture, buy/sell, read, watch, write online.  And it’s on our terms, at our convenience – any time of the day or night.  ‘Self-service’ online public services seemed like science fiction to some in the first decade of the millennium.  By 2020, the pace of technological change (and with it, the vast majority of public attitudes and behaviours) has forced governments and providers to catch up and open up.  Not only has this allowed for more accessible, personalised public services.  It is renewing a sense of active citizenship and political legitimacy – the decline of which was reaching crisis point only ten years earlier.

Monday, March 22, 2010

It may be ‘good to talk’, but talk is cheap. Tell me how.

By Charlotte Alldritt

I’m just back from Gordon Brown’s speech on securing Britain’s digital future – now recognised as one of the key drivers for economic growth (via our creative industries), opening up government (via open data) and delivering personalised public services (increasingly via online access).

Readers of our recent report, ‘Online or Inline’  (web version coming soon) will know that we heartily welcome these policy announcements. But they will also be aware of the challenges such announcements pose in reality. Important questions arise regarding consent, data security, data quality and the role of government in driving all this without stifling market innovation.

There are other big barriers that need to be addressed. The main ones for me are digital inclusion and cultural attitudes in  government and public services.

The Prime Minister talked a lot about digital inclusion and the need for universal broadband access. He said that 100% of the population should be able to take advantage of the benefits of internet (currently nearly a fifth of the population does not have access). Whilst Martha Lane Fox and her team are working to eliminate the current digital divide, Gordon Brown has extended her mandate to ensure that a new digital divide is not created with the advent of next generation broadband (the ‘semantic web’). Universal access will be essential for universal, increasingly personalised (online) public services. The Prime Minister stressed both the moral and economic imperative about this. But, I was left unclear about the role of central government in ensuring access to next gen broadband is not a function of profitability alone. How can government ensure that it reaches the UK’s poorest, elderly, or people in rural areas? How does government get involved without stifling the incentives of the private sector? Is an independent Ofcom enough? There is a fine balance that needs to be struck.

The need for cultural change came up in response to my question on data quality. Our research shows that there is cultural nervousness and even – at times – suspicion/aversion to the release of open data by government and public services. The Prime Minister acknowledged that this needs to change, and the momentum from activists (and to an extent the wider public post MPs expenses) is building. But we need to know more about how this cultural revolution (and it is not an exaggeration to call it so) will happen in practice.  It matters too much to leave it to the forces of ‘inevitability’.

The detail needs to be worked on at a pace if it is to keep up with the rate of development in current and emerging technology. The good news is that politics has woken up to the power of data and the internet for transforming our relationship with government and public services.  But while it may be ‘good to talk’, talk is cheap.  Tell me how.

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Posted by Charlotte Alldritt at 12:42 pm
Monday, March 15, 2010

Information and technology in public services? They’re only just logging-on…

By Charlotte Alldritt

I’ve just met with Rory Geoghagen, who recently set up ‘Viscero’ - an enterprise dedicated to using online technologies to improve public services. Viscero is focussed on two main aspects of the criminal justice system at the moment – mapping witness appeals to help connect witnesses and the police, and online victim case updates (the equivalent of a parcel tracker for victims of crime). This new venture shows how the internet can be used to generate better outcomes for public services at lower cost.

Viscero is just one of many applications and organisations starting to spring up in the public sector. We’ve got social enterprises such as MySociety, FixMyStreet, and We’ve also got private businesses such as that are entering the fledging market for information on public service quality.

But it’s not easy. People trying to utilise online technologies – whether social networking tools, data mapping, or just published information on the web – are up against some serious barriers in public services. Confusion over data sharing legislation and traditional causes of risk aversion are just the tip of the iceberg. The age of open data and ‘post-bureaucratic’ government is held back by the kind of ingrained cultural practices exposed (for example) by the MPs expenses scandal last May and Basildon and Thurrock hospital in November 2009.

Our report – Online or In-line, the future of information technology in public services – examines why many public sector organisations are operating in the dark, behind closed doors. Perhaps too many metaphors…but the point is this: we need public services to open up to online technologies as a genuine way of delivering the Holy Grail – more for less. As I suggested last week, we also need government and public service providers to turn on the light through better, more widespread use of data. Then they need to open the door to public scrutiny.

As both the expenses scandal and Basildon and Thurrock hospital example showed, public scrutiny is a powerful instrument of accountability and refocusing on quality and standards. All the main political parties are starting to wake up to this, but – as our report will show – they need to go further, and fast.

Online or In-line, the future of information technology in public services is published on Friday 19th March. Check out video clips from two of the authors on the 2020 PST home page.

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Posted by Charlotte Alldritt at 9:05 pm
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