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The rapid digitisation of public services in response to COVID-19 needs to be looked at with a critical eye

Jordan Binedell welcomes the rapid adoption of technology in public services but argues that we need to give priority to ensuring those services continue to retain public trust and confidence.

In our recent webinar on recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, Damien Allen, Chief Executive of Doncaster Council, argued that ‘it is on the edge of chaos that creativity and innovation abound’. And this year has been nothing if not chaotic. Private and public sector organisations alike have been forced to adapt and transform to digital service delivery. This shift has been swift and necessary to ensure the continued delivery of vital public services.

During the first wave of COVID-19, public services rapidly altered their delivery models so people could access and provide support safely from their homes. Public services have implemented digital services at scale and pace. For example, in response to Covid-19, Sport England introduced a digital grant assessment process to help them manage the influx of grant applications by struggling sports clubs, enabling them to process 11,000 applications and make 7,500 emergency support grants in just over a month.

However, a recent report by the Boston Consulting Group shows that only 30% of digital transformation projects succeed in meeting their long-term objectives. This leads to the question: should we keep transformed digitised services in place following the end of the pandemic?

The benefits of increased digital service delivery are varied and numerous. For organisations, the most obvious attraction is cost savings. A McKinsey report estimates there is $1 trillion in global economic value by making public services more efficient and effective. Other benefits include breaking down internal silos, better information and data-sharing, task automation, and an increase in the quality and coverage of services. For example, Thurrock Council and Xantura, a data analytics firm, collaboratively developed a COVID-19 response service that enabled Thurrock to quickly identify those vulnerable to the virus and provide support through targeted outreach.

But digital services also pose challenges. For example, family court hearings and child protection conferences are now being provided virtually for the first time. While we must find a way to continue these services, the virtual nature of proceedings has caused difficulties for some families. Parents have not had adequate technology to be able to participate fully, while others have experienced issues communicating with their legal representatives.

Beyond these examples, there is a risk that digital advances exacerbate inequality by making access to public services more difficult and expensive for the poorest. Nearly two million households in the UK do not have internet access, with millions more using pay as you go services, creating a ‘digital divide’. Older and disabled people may also struggle to use the technology required to access services.

Understandably, continuous delivery of services has been prioritised during the pandemic. As we begin to have time to reflect, services leaders need to look more closely at the impact of changes on the trust and confidence of users and the wider public.

Rapid digitisation has produced many benefits. But they are not universal and services must now be looked at with a critical eye. An understanding of the entire operating system, how it is connected, and its future objectives is vital. And with the news of a potential vaccine roll-out beginning as early as December, leadership must begin to critically evaluate recent digital advances and determine whether they support their long-term objectives, and therefore build public trust, or if they were merely a function of their time.

To hear more about MV’s work on COVID-19 recovery contact us on info@mutualventures.co.uk.

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