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The 2020 Public Services Trust Blog

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Longer term perspective

By Charlotte Alldritt

It’s been a busy week in UK politics: Prime Minister David Cameron defended top-up fees to the tune of 50,000 students rioting in central London; Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Ian Duncan Smith revealed new sanctions for claimants of unemployment benefit and, ahead of the G20 meeting in South Korea, Bank of England governor Mervyn King warned of the threat to our economy if chronic global imbalances persist.  Amidst all of this, the 2020 PST and RSA brought together scores of public, private and voluntary sector leaders at our Public Services Summit on Tuesday.

Sir Andrew Foster, Chair of the 2020 Commission, highlighted the timeliness of our focus: at this time of fiscal austerity, threats to our public services from cuts are at the top of the political agenda.  The ‘phoney war’ on budgets is set to launch a real offensive.  More than this (and despite genuine efforts from frontline professionals, managers and politicians) the ‘long tails’ of underperformance have left us falling short of what we want, expect and need from our public services.  Public services need to be redesigned so that they are fit for lives we lead and the society we want to create in the 21st Century.

In his keynote speech to the 2020PST/RSA Summit, Rt Hon Francis Maude MP set out the Government’s three-pronged approach to transforming public service delivery:

  1. Channel shift – moving more public services online (e.g. building on the success of the online DVLA vehicle tax renewal, initially to transactional services such as Student Loans and some welfare benefits);
  2. Mutuals – enabling service professionals and users to take a real stake in their public service organisations, unlocking the energy and innovation of ‘entrepreneurial frontline’ staff (e.g. Central Surrey Health); and,
  3. Payment by results – paying providers (of any and every type) for the outcomes they achieve, not pre-funding them so they have limited incentives to aspire to more efficient and effective social outcomes (e.g. Single Work Programme and rehabilitation of offenders).

The 2020 Public Services Trust has examined each of these throughout the course of our research programme.  Our Final Report, ‘From social security to social productivity’ calls for implementation of all three in some form.

But as always, the questions on my mind come back to accountability.  Francis Maude referred to the other big announcement of this busy political week – that of our ‘revolution’ in transparency and the relationship between citizen and the state.  But here the overwhelming consensus at the Summit, in Westminster, and beyond (for the need for change) starts to break down.  Lord Andrew Adonis said that recent announcements did not represent a redrawing of the lines between citizen and the state; “For as long as the State pays for services, Government will be held to account.  If the Government doesn’t set indicators/targets, the media will.”  Matthew Taylor quoted some of the more obscure passages from one of the departmental business plans (published on Monday), designed to enable citizens to monitor and scrutinise Government more closely.

Number 10’s Transparency website is a welcomed start to what will be one of the most interesting and important questions for our democratic society: how do we – the public – engage with our Government and public services?  It is a question that speaks to the availability of quality data; the provision and interpretation of information; mechanisms for citizen/user feedback and redress; public trust in politicians, and, the legitimacy and efficacy of our political system.   These challenges of governance and society have been with us since time immemorial; as was the aim of 2020 PST and our Commission, they give a single busy week a longer term perspective.

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.

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
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Vince is right, but we must take courage and be bold!

By Charlotte Alldritt

I’ve just got back from Reform’s launch ‘Tackling the fiscal crisis: A recovery plan for the UK’ by Vince Cable MP. In this well reasoned and balanced pamphlet, the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats argues for a bold approach to cutting the public deficit by 8% within 5 years.

Vince Cable’s ideas are based on the premise that a public deficit of 13% is too high. Moreover, it is a structural deficit – the increase in public spending of 40% since 1997 has been built on the “unstable and impermanent” UK financial sector and housing market. While he accepts that tackling the stock level of debt (as a proportion of GDP) is not a matter of immediate urgency, Cable asserts that the deficit and debt levels need to be reduced as soon as it is timely to do so (i.e. when it will not jeopardise recovery).

Meeting a challenge of such scale must not be rushed, argues Cable. It must be done right. He offers five principles for change:
1.  Zero-based budgeting – nothing is sacrosanct; departments will have to defend every aspect of spending.
2.  Democratic accountability – Parliament should be able to scrutinise public spending plans before they are implemented, not just after via the National Audit Office.
3.  Localism – local government should be free from excessive central government bureaucratic oversight. They should be given revenue raising power, especially over business rates.
4.  Transparency – public spending by the civil service and quangos should be readily scrutinised.
5.  Public sector reform – focus should be on value for money and outcomes, not input targets or meaningless talk of ‘efficiency’.

Whilst all these principles are right and laudable in theory and Vince Cable offers some sensible policy suggestions as a result, they pose considerable problems in practice.

For example, zero-based budgeting has the potential to lead to siloed rather than strategic resource allocation, as each department tries to defend his own (possibly for reasons of salary incentives and empire building rather than the public interest). Decentralisation has proved notoriously been talked of, tried and failed, largely a result of the centralised UK political culture. And what of the implications of cutting back education or NHS spending? As one member of the audience asked this morning, will we be going back 10 years to long waiting lists and people lying untreated in hospital corridors? Or, as Vince Cable himself acknowledges, might the quality of public services fall under the guise of so-called productivity gains (e.g. via doubling of class sizes, or reducing the number of HE tutorials)?

Whilst going further to inject sense and honesty into the debate than has been offered by the other two main parties, the overwhelming critique I have of this paper is its limited reference to the growing demand for health care, social services and education (see my blog yesterday). If we take these into account and – as Vince Cable argues – we have to tackle the national debt and deficit sooner rather than later by cutting public spending, our situation looks even graver still.

Courage will be needed to tackle this head-on, and it must start with a fundamental change in the relationships between the citizen, communities, local and central government. We need to be bold to avoid this otherwise impending black hole for public services.


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