Let’s start with the easy bit – what digital transformation isn’t.
It’s not councils buying a bunch of digital technologies and adding a second layer to existing processes and systems. That’s digital replicating analogue, expensively. Yes, it works – after a fashion – but it’s inelegant, unwieldy and is a continuation of business as usual, rather than a true transformation. That requires a shift in focus from the provision of a series of individual services (the analogue way) to an approach that places the citizen’s needs at its heart.
It starts with rethinking the ability of digital technology to give citizens what they want from local public services as a whole, in the simplest way possible. For citizens, the greatest convenience and ease of access comes through a single point of contact. Imagine it as a digital community hall housing the council – along with a digital police station, community health service, community hospital, acute hospital and more. One place, one log-in. Just as Amazon bills itself as the “everything shop” the digital community hall would have everything for local public and voluntary services. It’s a complete reorganisation to make local services join up and work together.
Citizens can then call up all their own data, from council tax or social housing rent to medical records and treatment plans, using a single portal. They can also access the services they need across the community, from councils to health authorities and voluntary organisations. This concentration of community access means getting rid of information silos and the time-consuming, expensive replication of data between them. The elimination of data duplication between different departments and organisations makes the system viable – input once, use many times.
What if, for example, that social care, hospitals and GPs all had access to the same information about the people they serve – how much time and money would be saved, and how much easier would it be for an individual to access the services he or she needs? Merging all the silos requires technical design – the planning of the programming that will connect all the current information silos so the data flow will fit the new organisation. We’ll also need legislative changes to allow full data sharing – a proactive version of the new General Data Protection Regulation, giving people the right to allow data to be shared. That, in turn, means a shift in the culture around privacy.
People already unwittingly share huge amounts of supposedly private data when they use social media, so the leap to allowing cross-organisational sharing of personal data isn’t so great, given it’s in their own best interest. For example, given relevant permissions, close relatives could help to monitor the health of the elderly or infirm, which would relieve pressure on community nurses and doctors. The key will be effective communications and a recognition that some people will need help in getting used to accessing services digitally.
Some councils already operate a smaller scale, analogue version of this approach, where town halls have a one-stop, walk-in shop for their services. This sometimes includes a police post, health visitors and voluntary sector representatives. The digital community hall expands the concept and brings it into the modern era. It can be run in parallel with a physical one-stop shop while people become used to the simplicity of the online single source. The gov.uk website is a similar concept on a national scale that’s been developed over several years. While it’s going to be several more years before all central government services are truly merged, it’s a distinct improvement on the dozens of previously separate sources of departmental and agency information.
In some places, the digital community hall is already a reality, to varying degrees. Wiltshire Council is making a start by taking on its local police force’s IT. Manchester is combining hospital, local health and social care. In Japan, there is no distinction between health, social care and council provision. In Estonia, the e-Estonia project is building the first digital society – and reaping the rewards. It’s time the UK grasped the digital future.
We’re up for true digital transformation and the social and financial benefits it can bring. If you are, let’s talk.