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The Public Sector’s (un)Digital Future (part II)

Ralph Cook

Woman with iphone

In July IMPOWER launched a paper on ‘Digital Demand Management’. I wrote in the introducing blog about how collectively as a sector we have failed to clearly visualise what the future of digital public services looks like. Following on from this, there are a couple of points that I am keen to elaborate on.

A digital vision for public services

When it comes to digital innovation, what is the sector really trying to achieve? Based on the digital innovation currently taking place, it feels as though something is missing; it is an irritating ‘known unknown’. For me, this vision would be about councils shifting to a demand-led approach based on customer insights. This then would allow us to re-imagine the skills and functions of councils so that they can design and deliver digitally enabled public services fit for the 21st Century. I see no such vision in the current marketplace; digital innovation is at best ad-hoc and at worst not happening at all.

However we do know that ‘digital’ has been pigeon-holed in to a transactional space rather than a transformative one. It is often the responsibility of the IT department or digital lead, all of which ultimately undermine its impact (a digital approach, for it to be truly effective, should be visible across the council and within every service directorate). As a result, digital efforts are:

  • Focused on transactional demand (not relational);
  • Impacting 10% of the budget (not 90%);
  • Based on technology and access channels (not models and culture change);
  • Focused on service re-design (not transformation around customer cohorts);
  • Supplying to meet demand (not managing demand in the first place); and finally
  • Frontline staff do not understand it, do not ask for it and often do not want it.

Digital at the heart of transformation

Digital is not at the front and centre of change conversations. For the majority of clients I work with it is still an after-thought in the design process when it should be the starting point. Collectively we have needed to pause and reconsider how we can best realise the true value digital can offer to a sector that needs to look very different; that needs to be disrupted (not reinforced) and that cannot simply ‘lift and shift’ the successes delivered in the private sector.

One of the reasons I joined IMPOWER 9 months ago was because they shared a similar view. We could do so much more with digital in the public sector if we came at it in the right way. Since then we have been on a journey of investigation, analysis and thought. We have engaged clients, senior stakeholders, partners, the private sector and citizens.  We have taken that pause and developed a new approach to digital innovation: Digital Demand Management.

Digital demand management

Digital demand management flips the approach to digital in the public sector on its head. Instead, it considers the strategic outcomes we want to achieve (rather than the digital solutions we want to sell) before understanding how digital can enable these outcomes.

Based on a set of five design principles (outlined in the paper), digital demand management enables the public sector to fully realise the potential of digital as an enabler of public service transformation. Specifically, we use the design principles within the context of three digital – and interconnected – challenges:

  1. Internal coordination (core internal functions operating as silos)
  2. Community interface (opportunities for communities to self-organise have not been realised)
  3. External service delivery (services are not led by consumer insight and demand)

Digital demand management provides a method for embedding demand management thinking throughout the digital design process. It recognises that the maturity of digital within community networks is a key enabler of self-organisation and therefore our ability to ultimately change the relationship between citizen and state.

Download the full report here

Next steps

We are keen to talk to public sector organisations with whom this resonates, to both make this approach a reality and unlock the real value of digital in a meaningful way within the public sector.

Written by

Ralph Cook



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