Comment Blog 10 December, 2018

Reimagining public services for citizens

Public services in the UK find themselves at a critical juncture. On one side is a population with increasingly complex needs and a growing demand for high quality products and services. On the other are the commissioners and providers, under close scrutiny from a post-Carillion Government pushing for increased accountability in public-private relationships. Looming ahead is the Treasury 2019 spending review which will outline new spending plans for public services and shape the political and financial landscape for the foreseeable future.

Nevertheless, “with these new pressures, there are also new possibilities”, contends the Rt Hon Matt Hancock MP, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. Rapid social and technological changes provide an unprecedented opportunity for those delivering public services to utilise inventive models and methods. More data is collected about individuals than at any other time in history. Yet whilst commercial enterprises have embraced these datasets to maximise their understanding of target groups, the public service sector has largely failed to follow suit. Reform’s recent research has demonstrated the potential of data-sharing to transform the delivery of public services and improve outcomes for citizens. At the heart of public services must be an improved collection, transfer, and usage of data, based upon a foundation of coherent cross-departmental digital technologies.

Embracing data will make it easier to detect existing issues in current service models, predict future challenges and areas of growth, and improve efficiency. The Government currently spends some £490 billion per year on public services, meaning even the smallest increases in efficiency could provide huge financial savings. An increased focus on data and digital technology could also improve the quality of services provided by reducing wastage, more appropriately tailoring services, and offering a “value over volume” approach through a focus on outcomes. However, this is possible only if providers and commissioners truly understand the needs of citizens and can genuinely engage with the data.

Positive examples of collaborative partnerships highlight how advantageous fresh approaches can be and reiterate the importance of data as the catalyst for innovation, such as the one between DeepMind and Moorfields Eye Hospital which uses AI to diagnose eye disease.

Public services are currently being delivered by a range of organisations, from the government to community-based initiatives, all of whom have different working systems and unique advantages. Larger companies tend to benefit from economies of scale in service delivery, whilst smaller organisations can often provide niche services aimed at specific population segments. To ensure that citizen outcomes continue to improve, new models of collaboration and integration should be encouraged to bring together these frontline organisations. Organisations have already begun to challenge the orthodoxy of public services provision.

By driving outcomes-based public service programmes, groups like Social Finance and Impetus-PEF facilitate the involvement of a wide range of providers to meet the needs of a target cohort. Space exists for further innovation but those involved with public services need to be able and willing to expand into it.

Pressures may have increased on our key public services but our responsibilities remain the same – to ensure that all who need them have access to a service that works for them. What matters is how we as a society meet these demands, whilst improving user outcomes and achieving value for money. The answer lies with using innovative, data-based models of public service delivery. As Emmanuel Macron, the French President, succinctly observed in support of the international GovTech summit in Paris only a few weeks ago, “there has never been a better time to make public services more affordable and accessible, using new technology solutions”. We need to encourage more political and business leaders to take the same approach.