Thanks to the digital revolution, technology is allowing governments to connect and communicate with citizens in an entirely new way.
But is the UK government in particular making use of it?
In this blog post, I’m going to share my thoughts on the future of government services, inspired by what I heard and saw at Fujitsu World Tour.
Are citizens the same as customers?
Throughout all the public sector discussions I attended at World Tour, one question stood out: how do you define the relationship between citizens and government?
There’s an idea that citizens are the customers of the state. For some, this can be useful in thinking about the level of service citizens should receive.
After all, nearly everyone consumes digital services from private sector organisations, either as a customer or as an employee.
The public sector should aim to match the quality of experience that citizens receive from these private companies.
However, there is some debate about whether this makes a citizen a customer of the state.
As Professor Vishanth Weerakkody, of Bradford University, argued, “I’m not a customer of the state, I’m a taxpaying subject. Most of my dealings with government are obligatory – if I don’t pay council tax, I will be prosecuted.”
Of course citizens and customers do share the same rights, as Fujitsu’s Patrick Stephenson pointed out.
Every citizen has the right to give information once, and for it then to be used many times to make transactions automatic.
They also, crucially, have the right to be forgotten. So if they would like their details to be erased, or a particular event to be taken off the record, they can ask for this too.
The situation today: digital chaos
So, what’s the outlook for digital government services in the UK today?
According to Georgina O’Toole, Chief Analyst at TechMarketView, we’re currently in a situation of ‘digital chaos’.
The government has made attempts to create a digital by default system, by decentralising the IT function and moving digital into the lines of business.
This has changed the shape of some government services – on the front end.
But really, very little has been changed to the infrastructure at the back-end. Here, things are still not joined up properly.
Georgina pointed out that most of the digitalisation that has taken place – like the online passport application service, for example – is nothing more than a digital layer sitting on top of fifty years of complex legacy systems.
This is digital chaos. And it has important implications for the future, as Patrick highlighted.
By 2025, 50% of our working population will be ‘Gen Z’, or those born in the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s.
That peer group, Patrick suggested, will expect government services to be digital by default. The government can’t afford to miss out on connecting with a whole generation of citizens in this way.
A template for a better future
Fortunately, there is a model for excellent digital government: Estonia.
Since 2001, all Estonian public services have been digital. Every citizen has an e-identity, which contains all their key information, meaning they can interact with government in a seamless and easy way.
Take this as an example: on average, it takes an Estonian citizen three minutes to fill out a tax return.
Having public systems which are truly joined up also means that Estonian citizens don’t have to apply for services.
So, if you have a child and become eligible for child benefit, you will receive it automatically without having to ask, because the data has already been shared between the different departments. This is ‘invisible government’.
In the words of Helen Olsen Bedford, Founder and Publisher at UKAuthority, “Estonia provides us with a vision of what the future could look like”.
How do we get there?
Escaping the complexity of digital chaos, and becoming more like Estonia, won’t be easy.
This transformation will be all about the softer issues. As Georgina highlighted, there’s not enough trust between government departments, and this has impeded collaboration and data sharing – even though it will benefit citizens.
We need the political and cultural will to make this change to a digital first form of government.
This is evidenced by the case of the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), a clear success story of public digital transformation.
As I learned at World Tour, the FCA are currently undertaking an ambitious digitalisation plan, moving all their key infrastructure to the cloud in the next five years.
They’ve been supported in this by Oracle and Fujitsu. In their breakout session, the team behind this operation explained the secret to their success: collaboration.
The three-way partnership has been a difficult balancing act, they reported, but one that has been hugely worthwhile.
It’s certainly a formula the government can replicate as it works towards its own digital transformation goals.
Serving the public – digitally
Ultimately, the most important thing to remember is that this has a real impact on people’s lives.
Georgina spoke from her own experience when she described the difficulties of accessing services for a disabled child.
You have to deal with a number of different agencies, and when one agency says you need a wheelchair, two other agencies have to assess and verify this.
But the information is already in the system somewhere. Why should citizens have to go through the stressful, and expensive, rigmarole of applying again and again?
In this way, we should look at digital transformation as a way to serve citizens – which is fundamentally what government is all about.
Interested in learning more? Read our blog on why citizens need to own their own data.
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