Public Sector and Tech...a plea

I am passionate about the public sector.

I am also angry that in 2016 we in the UK;

  1. Have a shortage of homes for our population.
  2. Have people living on our streets.
  3. Have people are beginning to get excluded from society because of their lack of opportunity to become engaged in ‘digital’ platforms.

Now, I can do my utmost on the first two points (and do), through various offline and online activities. On the third point I can do something more specific and can make a bit more of a noise about the use (and understanding) of digital in the public and third sectors. To make 100% clear all that is written here is my personal opinion view of the public sector’s relationship with technology and the digital market as a whole.

A note of declaration — I was a senior manager within the public sector for a few years (believe it or not…) and worked in the housing sector from a Local Authority standpoint for some years, in recent times have worked with a few housing organisations and very, very recently just started to work (one workshop session) with another.

To make another declaration — although I work within the digital sector — this is not a piece focused on gaining some level of traction within the market, to make some noise or have moan etc. It’s the opinion piece of someone with a little cross market experience who cares and is becoming increasingly bamboozled by not just central government, but also attitudes and approaches to technology in the public and third sectors and the huge opportunities that are being missed simply through misguided and unclear thinking.

So, with that in mind and as a relevant study (with the forthcoming election in the UK looming) I have completed a bit of a study and series of observations on the housing sector.

The challenges for those in the housing sector are many, some high level points are;

  • The lack of support from any political party to the housing market, housing and social care professionals and the public’s need and desire for a clear strategy to begin to address the housing shortage which is turning into a crisis.
  • The change in benefit payment processes.
  • The change in personal access to pension funds.
  • The ageing population.
  • Issues of social inclusion or exclusion (depending on the angle you view it from).
  • The potential breakdown and break-up of the NHS.
  • The increased control and influence of Local Authorities that could lead to more localism in the form of LA direct management of development funds.

Then, (with my tech hat on) let’s consider the wider societal influences of technology and the behaviour that this has created or encouraged (again, depending on the angle you view it from…..)

  • The increased use of social media and ‘open season’ in respect of engaging with housing associations.
  • The increasing digital natives influence on society and its behaviour (everyone is an expert).
  • Digital users are all (without exception) time and attention short.
  • Multiple devices apps etc.
  • The sheer level and volume on online noise that is directed at users also influences their behaviour — they can shut off from engagement — “Stop sending me emails!”

Although these are very far from exclusive they do present very real challenges to organisations that are potentially being placed between a rock and a very, very hard place. However, some general analysis into the housing market as a whole have raised a number of wider observations, lessons and approaches that the public sector as a whole could consider;

  • Stop talking at people or indeed stop pretending to listen — you may think you listen but every piece of behaviour highlights this is not true. True listening (and especially digital reviews, observations and engagements) takes up a lot of resource — use tech and digital to really listen — not just information and content that is being fired at you but the wider chatter. Do not respond to tweets and think you are doing enough.
  • Engage yourselves in your residents/users ‘eco-systems’ — understand your place in their life in comparison to other companies/organisations and (dare I say it) brands. How do they interact with other organisations — what works for them? Align yourself with positive pieces and types of engagement.
  • Linking to the above point, get users really involved in your digital platform projects. Don’t just have user groups — go out and sit in their homes — watch how they use technology (or do not), don’t ask them to complete prescribed tasks — that proves nothing — It’s a bit like asking someone if they liked something a little or a lot (they may have hated it) — by prescribing the tasks and the question — you prescribe the answer.
  • It does not matter what you like as an organisation or an individual stakeholder — your opinion does not matter — it’s subjective. This is especially true with design and functionality — let your users decide what works and doesn't.
  • Keep quality assuring, checking, and testing your platform and functionality. Then repeat and repeat again.
  • Do not rely on historical analytics to define what your digital platform should look like. Although useful, analytics only tells you what has happened not what will. Consider proper trend analysis using your own experience, that of your users and those in wider marketplaces.
  • Do not let internal personalities or politics influence your digital solutions. I have lost count of the amount of public and third sector organisations that have fallen foul on this.
  • Don’t set digital engagement targets without having a plan on how to deliver web/digital access to your residents. If need be work with third parties — the learning and experience of Brighton is a prime example — then do so. It is incumbent on you as either public, third sector or housing provider to do this in 2016 — we all have a responsibility to address the pernicious effect of social exclusion.
  • Lose the term ‘self-service’ — people have no time to run through a process that a software vendor has developed for them. The user is always at the end of the thought process in every single case of putting a back office system online — that’s why it was a back office system in the first place. It may work as a short term fix but forward thinking organisations need to build their service offering around a digital client — who is very mobile and time and attention short.
  • Create a task based platform –that understands user behaviour and how the web fits into everyday life. Users drive the web not the other way around! Then guess what? They serve themselves instinctively.
  • Be brave — work with people that challenge the norm and do not use buzzwords to get their point across — if you hear the word ‘innovate’ — leave the room.

These ideas and experiences — if considered and addressed or mitigated — can then lead to a huge level of freedom and opportunity from a technical and organisational perspective some examples could be;

  • Specific applications and solutions for different user types.
  • Geographical based solutions.
  • Individual online solutions for users (note the non- use of the word personalisation).
  • Becoming an integral part of residents ‘eco-systems’ strengthens your relationship with them and means they are much more willing to interact with you and provide more useful, valuable data and information — enabling you to offer services and support you may not have even identified as an option.
  • Address mobility and social exclusion issues — the cost to the state of the physical and mental effects of social exclusion are huge — by identifying and offering ‘real’ solutions and increased levels of engagement in this area real differences to people’s lives can be made.
  • True self-service and diagnosis of problems, issues and process.
  • Task based interactions with residents and users — freeing up resource to focus on the wider offline and online piece. Although this point will probably result in rationalisation of staff…… it usually does so the online service may improve but the whole experience with an organisation goes through the floor (that is for another piece — with lots of personal examples..).

So, where does gov.uk sit in all of this? I am a huge fan of their approach, successes and their willingness to provide their learnings out into the wider market. I believe they create a framework, a toolkit of best practice and methods that organisations of all types should learn from. They have the advantage of being heavily funded by the Government and I leave it to you dear reader to decide whether they have provided value for that investment.

Agree or disagree with this piece — of course it’s completely your choice, but I do passionately believe in all I have written. The opportunity for those in the public and (in the context of this brief study) the housing sectors are huge and whether the wider digital responsibility is a core business team or in delivered in partnership with the private or wider public sector — it needs to become a key part of organisational change and improvement.

Your users demand and deserve it — just be clear as to what ‘it’ is , because they may not tell you in the manner or way you expect.

Stop spending money on digital - or at least think before you do.....

My news is not your news