Is there a simple way to provide public services?
This is a question I asked myself recently, as I attended the Public Sector Solutions Expo.
I presented at the conference alongside Marten Kaevats, the National Advisor for Digital to the Government Office of Estonia.
I presented Fujitsu’s vision for the future of digital public services, which revolves around one idea: citizens should be in control of their own data. Marten through no coincidence presented what the Government of Estonia has done – which is based on exactly the same principles. In this blog, I’m going to give a quick re-cap of what we discussed – and explain why it matters.
Every citizen is also a consumer. In our everyday lives, we use banks, supermarkets and estate agents.
And the vast majority of these private sector businesses provide us with a personalised online service.
But right now, this isn’t our experience with government services. This is something that emerged clearly in the focus groups we’ve recently conducted.
Participants asked us: why do we have to keep inputting the same data? Why do we have to create a new account for every department and go through the rigmarole of being validated every time? Why isn’t our data shared across government?
At the root of this difference is the fact that the UK lacks a digital identity solution. That too combined with the fact that departments, agencies and authorities are separate legal entities and there are still cultural and technical barriers from sharing our data with one another.
Why does it matter?
Giving people control over their own data can have a dramatic impact on their life.
Imagine, for example, that you have a life-changing accident that seriously reduces your mobility.
As it stands currently, you will have to apply for disability allowance – a process which can take up to three months. It involves lots of forms and trips to government offices to have your status verified. At what is a very difficult time when you less than likely to be mobile.
But why should you have to go through this?
Your doctor knows that you’ve had an accident. They’ve processed all your health information already. It should automatically filter into the system that provides you with your benefits allowance.
This kind of system is called ‘invisible government’, because it anticipates proactively the events in each citizen’s life, giving them what they need when they need it.
It’s already in operation in Estonia, as Marten, my fellow presenter, pointed out – and that comparatively tiny country in northern Europe is the world leader in terms of delivering e-services to its population.
And it’s all based on the principle that citizens should be able to choose what happens with their data.
This is better for individual people, as the healthcare example demonstrates. But it also helps the government to run more efficiently.
Currently, for example, the disability benefit has to be independently vetted by an external contractor. In an automatic, digitally-enabled system, the cost of this external contractor could be removed.
And of course, the time efficiencies speak for themselves.
Civil servants won’t have to spend so much time chasing paperwork, while citizens get access to the services they need faster. It’s better for everyone.
How do we get there?
Estonia is clearly an example to follow. So what do we need to do to get from here to there?
In addition to e-Identity, blockchain has a big role to play in the journey.
This technology makes information immutable. You can see if something as been changed, when it has been changed, and by whom – which is ideal for protecting and tracking citizens’ private data.
You can also secure it and choose to share it only with a select group of people. In much the same way that people already share data between the apps on their smartphones.
And using blockchain isn’t impossible or scary. It’s not really a new technology and certainly not the sole preserve of digital currencies – Estonia has been using it since 2008.
Estonia is a great template for any modern government including the UK. Irrespective of its relative population, they have built an entire digital culture from nothing, by making bold choices with new technologies and focusing on providing everyone with a digital identity. As Marten pointed out, it’s about mindset and it’s about culture.
Fujitsu is proud to say we’re part of their journey, as we worked on the first three iterations of the Estonian system.
It’s an experience which gives us a unique perspective on the situation in the UK – and what needs to be done to improve it.
Making choices about your own data
So, let’s return to my opening question. Is there a simple way to provide public services?
It’s probably too much to say that a digital system will solve all the challenges that come with public services.
But it’s clear that in future e-services will ease a lot of stress and cost for both citizens and the government itself.
And the key to it all is giving citizens control over their own data.
You can choose to share your data. Or you can choose not to share any of your data at all.
The point is that you benefit from having the choice.
If you choose, you can reduce the hassle of applying for different services, and simply receive them automatically instead.
And this makes sense. After all, it is your data.
You should be able to use it to make your life easier and more productive – that’s what government is for.