Socitm is the UK-based professional body for people involved in the leadership and management of IT and digitally enabled services delivered for public benefit.

Amongst various activities they regularly produce informative literature on what a digital service should be, how it might work and what it ought to deliver.

In late 2014 Socitm published its “Digital: Vision to Value” briefing which laid down comprehensive ideals of digital services aimed at the public.

In the document were three core principles:

  • Innovation to empower citizens and communities
  • Service redesign to simplify, standardise and automate – read below
  • Collaborate, share and re-use resources and assets

How can you, as a public sector organisation, use digital services to meet these core principles? Based on our experience in digital plan making – delivering e-consultation and interactive digital mapping services for local authorities – let’s explore some ideas.

Service redesign to simplify, standardise and automate

Socitm states several ideals in its “Digital: Vision to Value” report, which we’ll look at in turn:

“Local public services should be ‘digital by design’ where practical”

Following the March 2012 Budget, the Government committed to making its services “digital by default.” While this is not mandated for local government, the emphasis on shifting services to more cost-effective channels has increased significantly. So the Local Government Association’s “Transforming Local Public Services” using digital means (June 2014) cites the use of GPS mapping to improve waste collection efficiency, saving the likes of Forest Heath Council and St Edmundsbury Borough Council £300,000 a year. Or the London Borough of Hillingdon saving £750,000 a year by moving to Google Apps. The report cites more than 50 examples of mostly transactional services where digital delivery has streamlined the process and reduced cost.

The report doesn’t feature digital plan making as an example, yet e-consultation and mapping services deliver simplification and automation too. We estimate that Conwy County Council has reduced the time it spends dealing with planning policy representations by 60%. South Cambridgeshire District Council claims moving its planning policy service to a dedicated digital platform saved more than £38,000 annually of officer time.

Looking through all these examples, it seems there are few local public services that could not be ‘digital by design’. According to “Transforming Local Public Services”, it’s not the scope of opportunity that holds digital simplification, standardisation and automation back, but councils’ wariness of “switching the old ways off.”

“They should be co-designed with the service user”

Taking the “Transforming Local Public Services” document as a snapshot of digital innovation, there’s limited evidence that services are directly “co-designed by the service user.” Typically, authorities react to feedback (whether they ask for feedback or not) and evolve services accordingly.

As suppliers of a digital public service, our technology also evolved to meet the needs of our customers. Our e-consultation and digital mapping software can be used for a variety of purposes. To deliver a specific benefit to planners, we adapted the technology so that, for example, it delivers PARSOL compliant data. For other uses, PARSOL is irrelevant. We also created a Programme Officer module for our e-Con system so it was easier and quicker for Councils to prepare data and materials requested by the Inspector. An Inspector costs authorities around £1,000 a day, so time is money. Like the public sector, we’re in constant engagement with our customers and evolve our product to meet their changing needs and even pre-empt them (for example, to work with upcoming legislation, or when technological advances make it possible to do new things). Is this true “co-design”? To an extent, yes, but like us, the public sector has to take a lead.

Socitm also recommends using “open and reusable standards, accessible anywhere, anytime, on any device”. We use Open Source technologies for our digital plan making products, which means our platform is flexible, extensible, and is constantly being improved by a vast army of global developers committed to making digital technology work better. This includes making the technology “responsive” so that it’s usable on any size device. Proprietary, “closed” systems typically cost more, because they are developed from the ground up and therefore cost more to update and maintain. Equally, proprietary software is (quite rightly) more fiercely protected by its makers, which tends to mean it takes more control from you. We know from experience that this is a problem for some public bodies.

“Outcomes that users value should be delivered by people”

What Socitm is saying here is that a “final verdict” should have input from a human being. Even though our digital journey is still in its infancy, we’ve already come to learn that some processes or decisions still need a human touch. What technology can do is expedite and standardise that interaction. Most software and digital services rely on human input at some point. There will be times when a phone call will always be quickest. Some transactional services can more easily take people out of the loop, but what local authorities can never ignore is that their role is to serve the local public, and the only way to do that is to listen and respond. Until true Artificial Intelligence arrives, that will need people – even if it’s via webchat.

Do your digital services “streamline, automate, standardise”?

How far would you say the digital software services streamline, automate, standardise your processes and workflows? Do you think Socitm’s principles are important? Are there any missing? As a provider of digital plan making software services to the public sector, we’d love your views and comments.

  • In our next post we’ll look at Socitm’s next digital service principle, “Solution to collaborate – share and reuse resource”