Ben Matthews December 12, 2013

Building Tech-Powered Public Services: 5 keys to success

Ben Matthews

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Building Tech-Powered Public Services is a new report published by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), looking at digital innovations in health and social care.

There are 7 major case studies in the report, including two from FutureGov:  Patchwork (an elegant solution to join up professionals working with troubled families, in an effort to ensure that frontline support is truly coordinated) and Casserole Club (which links people who like cooking with their neighbours who are in need of a hot meal, employing simple technology to grow social connections).

The other case studies include ADL SmartcareMental ElfPatient Opinion, The Digital Pen and form system and Woodland Wiggle.

These grassroots projects focus on the frontline experience of delivering and receiving public services, and avoid some of the pitfalls of top-down IT projects.

Sarah Bickerstaffe, the report’s author, answers two main questions:

Can technology improve the experience of people using public services?

“Technology can improve people’s experience of receiving public services, just as it has improved the user experience in so many other sectors. In health and social care particularly, the era of chronic conditions – which cannot be cured and are caused in large part by lifestyle factors – means that technology can play a critical role in placing power, responsibility and control in the hands of individuals to help them manage their own health.”

Could tech-powered public services be an affordable, sustainable solution to some of the challenges of austerity?

“Technology can also help to bear down on bureaucracy and ensure that the transactional elements of public services are as efficient as possible. More significantly, it can make a contribution to delivering more preventative services that stop or delay problems escalating, costing the taxpayer more downstream.”

Building Tech Powered Public Services

Sarah Bickerstaffe presents the findings of the IPPR report

There were clear and consistent lessons on how to successfully implement tech innovations in public services.

These five lessons have been identified as keys to success to building tech-powered public services:

1. User-based iterative design

User-based iterative design is critical to delivering a product that solves real-world problems. It builds trust and ensures the technology works in the context in which it  will be used.

Take a look at FutureGov’s review of the Enabled by Designathon for an example of user-based iterative design in practice.

Design research is a reflective process that works carefully alongside the eventual users and in the environments in which the product will be used. FutureGov (and other interviewees) favour this method of research alongside iterative design, which uses cycles of research, design, testing and analysis to develop a project.

A user-centred approach helps build a product that is responsive to the evolving concerns and environment around a project, and that enables the practitioner from the outset. Rapid prototyping is used, consisting of ‘sprints’ of two-to-four weeks built into ‘iterations’ of two-to-three months.

“A lot of the e-government stuff for the practitioner is very heavy duty, top-down, ‘we don’t trust you’, fill in this form… our approach is much more about enabling them to do the best job that they can, first and foremost.”

Dominic Campbell, founder of FutureGov

2. Public sector expertise

Public sector expertise is essential in order for a project to make the connections necessary to initial development and early funding.

Schemes like the Public Service Launchpad can help technology entrepreneurs to access the expertise they need. The Launchpad – led by FutureGov, working with the Cabinet Office and others – is a seven-month venture involving a scholarship and  accelerator programme for public service staff, service users, researchers, technology  developers and entrepreneurs, aiming to build a movement for innovation in local public services.

3. Access to funding

Access to seed and bridge finding is necessary to get projects off the ground and allow them to scale up.

Seed funding for startup projects was fairly readily available, with almost all of the case studies receiving support from organisations specifically focused on innovation, such as Nesta or the Technology Strategy Board – both of which FutureGov has received funding from.

A gap was identified around bridge funding to scale projects up and take them from proof of concept to roll-out. Getting stuck at the initial phase – suffering from ‘pilot-itis’ – is a risk for innovators.

“The space to stop a service, then redesign and reboot it doesn’t exist. The same happens with a new project that has grown organically, then tries to transfers across to replace existing services. Is piloting the best way? How do you get the bravery, creativity, opportunity to pilot services?”

Chris Leslie MP

Building stronger business cases capable of persuading commissioners to invest and ‘mainstream’ technological innovations is crucial, but the report finds that government should also consider reviewing the availability of bridge funding and publicising available funds.

4. Strong leadership

Strong leadership from within the public sector is crucial to overcoming the resistance that practitioners and managers often show initially.

In the case studies, initial resistance from those working in public services was a significant barrier to deploying innovations.

Strong leadership was essential to overcoming this barrier, and this a key area where the government should focus its efforts. Greater understanding of the possible reasons for resistance will help.

5. A strong business case

A business case that sets out the quality improvements and cost savings that the innovation can deliver is important to get attention and interest from public services.

The interviewees knew that building a strong business case that demonstrated impact on quality and productivity was crucial.

Mainstreaming innovations means convincing commissioners to fund them, and they are rightly demanding.

“If you just breeze into a buyer of a new technology in the NHS, the first question is, “does it improve healthcare for my patients? Does it work? Is it better than what I have at the moment? What are the cost benefits?” Technology developers in this sector are not used to presenting the answers to those question, and the best ones, the extraordinary examples, are those who work with the workers and people who understand the issues to develop better services.”

Jon Kingsbury, Nesta

Digital innovation can make a huge contribution to countering the challenges facing public services, improving quality and saving money. Public services lag far behind other sectors in exploiting the potential productivity gains from technology.

But the way to catch up is likely to be a decentralised approach that focuses on encouraging innovation at the frontline of service delivery, rather than huge, top-down projects.

Download the full “Building tech-powered public services” report at the IPPR site.