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Digital in the DNA: The radical change the public sector now needs

One of the favourite books on my family’s bookshelf is Richard Scarry’s classic What Do People Do All Day? We’ve spent endless bedtimes pouring over the pages and exploring how society works through the illustrations. My children’s curiosity about the grown-up world of jobs, the way communities work together, is matched by my own interest in building better public services having also taken time to observe in real-life how people live and what they need.

A lot of this comes from years spent working in digital teams in the public sector but it’s also about observing, questioning and analysing what people say, what people do and the myriad other bits of data at our disposal. What it has led me to – along with others who’ve worked in this field for the sector – is that building better digital services is solving the wrong problem; we should be building better public services. Radical change is needed if we’re going to start getting this right.

When website projects – or digital projects of all hues – are started in the public sector they generally focus on the tip of the service; the interface and the communications of a service. I elaborated on this in an earlier blog post for Granicus called Digital Icebergs – about how the deeper potential that comes from digital culture and Internet technologies has been largely unrealised. The needed savings have often been short-lived, or unmeasurable, or never realised and often this is because while the surface has improved the process underneath remains the same as always, untouchable to redesign.

Louise Downe, Director of Design and Service Standards for the UK Government said the mission of the Government Digital Service was now to improve the interaction between citizen and state. She has talked about how work so far had been deep and important, but was about digitising services that were at their core outdated. This new phase was about ‘a radical change in the delivery of public services, designed for the internet’.

The rest of the public sector is not immune and is also in need of this radical change. It will call on practical skills – those of communicators and digital designers who need to work out what people do all day through observing and connecting, through working with those very people who have a need that the public sector should be meeting. But it also needs a culture change within public sector organisations.

Long accused of silo working and hierarchical structures public sector organisations must evaluate their purpose and then not just digitise, but redesign themselves for the internet age. They need leadership which understands the thinking, the behaviour and the possibilities digital brings and who are open, honest and curious about how that intersects with the services they offer. They need a staff who are just as inquisitive, who are empowered to ask questions of their own service, of other services and to look for links across the sector. The organisation needs to be built on a foundation flexible enough to change in a fast-moving world and to enable services not just with the digital technology of today, but those which will come to be the norm in the future.

No longer should digital or digital communications in the sector be synonymous with website interface design for existing services, but be about understanding people’s needs and designing services with appropriate interfaces which meet that. Only this way – from delivering the right things in the right way – can the sector hope to achieve savings which are also sustainable.

Sarah Lay is a Digital Content Strategist who will be speaking on this subject at Granicus’ Public Sector Communications Conference on 26 September 2017 in London.