Opinion: Washing dirty laundry in the public sector

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The Government’s plan to put public services online by 2005 has the potential to significantly improve productivity, and enhance the quality of service to the citizen, argues Phillip Jones of Interchange Group.

The last few years have not been without eBusiness casualties leaving some private companies and public bodies ultimately disappointed. Learning from the mistakes of others, and using the right guides through this “eBusiness” jungle rather than technology alone, is therefore the key to achieving eGovernment by 2005. If not, the taxpayer will be picking up the bill once again.

Familiar tales about IT investments failing to live up to their promise generally conclude that better management over IT projects is the missing, magic ingredient. If the private sector can teach us anything it is that the way to reduce risk within IT projects is as much about ensuring that the project delivers the benefits it promised as about ensuring the project terminates on time and within budget.

This will require massive investment, not only in IT, but also in cultural change to alter the way public service is delivered under the new eGovernment scheme.

For example the use of technology which has the ability to react to last-minute changes in appointment scheduling could be used within the NHS to dramatically reduce the number of wasted appointments caused by patients not turning up for treatment.

Mobile devices such as Personal Digital Assistants, which are handheld wireless data devices, can safely bring electronic patient records to a hospital bedside or a patient’s home, or equip police officers with instant access to crime detection support systems.

According to research from KPMG*2 the demand for electronic services is still a minority interest. Customers/citizens wish to interact with the various agencies of the public sector not just via the Internet but other means such as face to face, interactive TV, and a call centre. Furthermore, unlike the private sector, the public sector has clearly defined social responsibilities to meet the needs of minority groups such as the disabled, and socially disadvantaged. For these reasons a wider range of interaction channels is required.

With this expansion in channels comes a need to build a robust platform that can handle all forms of customer dialogue, and make customer reference information available to hand, however they are conducted.

The secret is in building citizen service processes that work well with all channels - and not just with some. The public sector cannot politically take some of the risks accepted by private companies who experimented with new channels – adopting those that work, and eliminating those that do not.

Private sector experience also shows that offering customers a wide variety of choices in accessing services is in itself is no panacea. It cannot camouflage inefficient or inappropriate services that do not meet the customer requirement. If we are to expose public services over the Internet to the citizen in a self-service manner, we must mask, or remove, the complexity of inter-departmental procedures and protocols, by building on-line services that are easily understood, easy to use, secure, and unbreakable.

Increasingly, the private sector is turning to web portal technology to provide one-stop on-line shopping for products and services. Web portals allow multiple services to be integrated into a single web site, with a single secure log-on and access to a wide variety of information and self-help services. If the public sector is to mirror this, integration between multiple departmental systems is critical. Acceptance of eCommerce, and realisation of real benefits, are only achieved where real operational systems, delivering real-world services, are integrated into on-line service offerings. A pretty web site with dizzying graphics does not make an effective eCommerce site and the same is true for eGovernment.

The good news is that the experience within large businesses shows that although requiring higher investment, eBusiness initiatives that result in the ability to exchange information between departments also improves internal systems and in turn performance, efficiency, service delivery, and most importantly, the culture of the organisation. Like citizens, staff will enjoy access to a more accurate, and complete, view of the citizen requesting services. This can be exploited to deliver a more responsive service, tailored to suit the individual’s requirements at that time, by using data to identify opportunities across different departments.

For example, if the Highways Department could identify from the central database a family that is in the final stages of being housed by the Social Housing Department, it could use this information to process a parking permit at the same time so it was ready for when the family moved in.

It is this personalisation of service through improved data integration and document sharing that should be at the heart of eGovernment whatever the delivery mechanism.

In both the public and private sectors the more an organisation knows about their customers and their services, the more opportunities open up to enhance service.
Traditionally, information about services are kept in physical paper documents; information about the customer was based on what was originally volunteered and amended, supplemented by transactional details kept within each individual department, largely incapable of being integrated with other departmental data about the same person.

This is changing rapidly, largely because of technology improvements. Modern document management systems can allow an authorised person (including the data subject herself where appropriate) to find relevant information and initiate processes on-line. For example a single form such as a notification of death could be automatically transmitted electronically to all relevant departments, it’s progress through each department audited, monitored, and any delays in processing alarmed centrally at the press of a key. All this without a single photocopy being needed!

The trouble is there is currently a huge skill gap of people within the public sector to provide the right IT support and services necessary for such wide-ranging eGovernment installations. The Government needs to close this gap if it is to improve relations with the public, by bringing in the advice and skills of outside specialists.

Interchange Group has over 25 years of experience in delivering a range of IT solutions, within the private sector, skills that we have already exploited within the public sector.

*1The CRM in the Public Sector Report by Rhion Jones has been co-sponsored by Interchange Group and The Hewson Group and is available via the Hewson web site www.hewson.co.uk. It is a definitive report on the role of CRM in the Public Sector and the issues and implementation challenges facing the industry in pursuit of government's service transformation strategy.

*2 KPMG Consulting e-Government survey 2001: E-Government for all.

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