In its influential vision for 2020 Public Services, published in 2011, the RSA developed the idea of ‘social productivity’.
This is the extent to which the design and provision of public services taps into and enhances the capacity of individuals and communities to meet their own needs by being individually resilient, adaptive and collectively collaborative and public spirited. The idea echoed similar notions to be seen in public value theory, the idea of the ‘relational state’ and even some of the rhetoric of the Big Society.
Sadly, this agenda has largely run into the sand, partly due to a lack of commitment and imagination, but also as a consequence of austerity. The evidence suggests that GPs who spend time getting to know patients, social carers who work with the efforts of families and communities, teachers who engage with parents and police forces that connect with neighbourhoods will achieve better outcomes. But in a world of tight budgets and tough targets it is precisely this preventative, relational work that has been squeezed. Furthermore, the jobs at the boundary between the state and civil society – community, youth and outreach workers, for example – were often the first to go.
Meanwhile, as we hear every day, technology like machine learning and robotics offers the scope for major advances in economic productivity. By improving systems, making use of data and replacing human labour with machines, technology could, it is convincingly argued, make public services massively more efficient. The real opportunity here is to slash the cost and labour intensity of back office, bureaucratic routine work and to enable public services workers instead to focus on the stuff humans still do best; engagement, collaboration, caring, creativity.
However, the current discourse about technology and society, and technology and public services, is too often confused, suspicious and fearful. Citizens worry about jobs being lost, data being manipulated and massively powerful, tax-dodging companies gaining even more influence in our lives. One consequence of this fear, as the RSA argued in its recent report, The Age of Automation, is that the practical awareness of technological possibilities is too low and the take up of technology is too slow. As public service outcomes stall or decline, opportunities are already being missed.
As you may already have guessed, my view is that these two ideas of productivity need to be brought together. The way to inspire hope and action is to show how technology could allow us to create citizen-centred public services. However grim things are now, with the right vision, policy and relationships we can rekindle a belief in the possibility of high quality, empowering public service: ‘tech-enabled, citizen-centred’.
Of course, this isn’t a new thought. But to overcome scepticism and suspicion about technological change we have to face some hard issues upfront.
Here are three:
Data: Data is at the heart of technological change and possibility. It is where the value lies in the digital economy. But how can ensure that the approach to data works for innovation and business but also reassures and empowers the public?
Work, skills and organisational change: If, for example, we wanted to move tens of thousands of back-office Department for Work & Pensions staff (currently reliant on mainframe technology) into roles as job coaches, this would involve a major shift not only in the skills and competencies of staff but the whole culture of that organisation. Technology can help make the shift from passive delivery to relational empowerment possible, but how do organisations and the people in them come on that journey?
Partnerships: The history of public private partnerships, whether PFI, Whitehall IT contracts or contracting out, is objectively mixed and viewed almost entirely negatively by the public and media. How do we build new models of partnership which are fair, transparent and democratically accountable as well as commercially viable? Also how do these partnerships provide opportunities for start-ups, SMEs and local providers as well as the big players?
Most of all, as I said in an LGC column earlier this year, we have to see public service change though a systemic lens. This is not just about technological fixes; it involves reconceptualising public services in the context of all the factors that shape them and their outcomes; national regulations, other services, professions and skills, clients and citizens.
Just about everyone in the public sector is weighed down by years of austerity. Public services modernisation has in the past rarely lived up to its promise. It’s hardly surprising that talk of crafting service transformation should be greeted with weary scepticism. But do we really have any alternative?
Matthew Taylor, chief executive, RSA