Complex person-centred public services and Digital has to be designed in ways that are fundamentally different to transactional services.
Human Learning Systems work of Prof Toby Lowe, and and his analysis of around 50 public sector case studies is an important step in understanding why change in the public services is often so elusive. But his report begs a question that we have to answer here;
Why is Digital not a fundamental part of the solution in any of the case studies?
The seduction of simplicity; the Amazon effect.
We all know what Digital is, and how it has transformed the way we work and live. It is now hard to remember what we did without it. Google and Amazon have imbued us with a paradigm that Digital is transformative and provides us with a quantum leap in service efficiency and delivery.
We fell in love with Digital a long time ago. We can foresee the landscape of how our organisations would work differently, and how our lives would begin to be transformed, if only we design in more Digital. The next digital developments would simplify our work life, and present us with data that we could then use to make quick decisions. And we spend much of our time working to make this happen.
But despite what we tried in the public sector, we never quite get there. And here is why…
Digital is based on one key assumption, and that is that our behaviour is logical and predictable. The problem is, people are often complex, irrational, and unpredictable; especially when they are in need of help.
Transactional vs Complex Services
To probe the original question as to why none of the HLS case studies has Digital as a solution is simple. It comes from understanding the complexity of the services that are the core of the public sector.
Digital is a logical technology that enables transactions, communication and data movement to be automated. It has transformed how we renew passports and driving licenses, stripping out large chunks of work, producing both large efficiency and effectiveness gains. For highly transactional services, where the unit of service is an item, with very low variety and no variation of input, Digital is stellar.
Data consists of units, defined and unchanging from the moment they were created; by a design based on simplifying reality through categorisation. It is the ultimate act of logical reductionism, where we interpret the world through these categories and units. We compare like with like.
Knowledge is that which is what we perceive of what we learn about what happens in our lives. Whilst some knowledge can be reduced to single units, the reality is that knowledge often contains the nuances of beliefs, and behaviours. It may consist of thoughts and feelings, about the reality that we inhabit as irrational human beings.
To make matters worse, knowledge is often dependent upon the situation that we are examining at the time – being highly contextual. To use a simple example; the experience of one person in a restaurant, eating a meal, may be totally different to another doing exactly the same thing. How can we collate and store this information, except by the simplifying and assuming that each person has the same context as the other?
Is a situation that is difficult or impossible to predict because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognise. It defies any standard attempt to understand because it is a symptom or result of multiple, contingent, and conflicting issues. Much of the work of the public sector in dealing with people, family and community issues are like this.
Combining data, knowledge and complexity together
As soon as we consider services that deal directly with people, this introduces complexity and variation that is unpredictable at the level of the individual demands that come into the service. If we attempt to Digitalise that demand, the evidence shows that the information that we have just stored becomes unrepresentative, simplified and rapidly out of date. The result over time is a separation of engagement between the citizen in need and the government agency. This fact alone causes a whole host of reactions from citizens in need. The data becomes trans-contextual.
On the other hand, by using staff themselves to understand and assess citizens needs, they can take in whatever level of variation and complexity that they need to, to deal with the context that they are immersed in.
As an example, the success of the initial response to the COVID pandemic by local authorities has been overwhelmingly down to applying HLS principles in uncertain environments. At this local level, the absence of Digital solutions can be contrasted by the effective use of telephones and direct communication between staff and citizen in need, and local agile community responses. Digital big data was left behind in its inability to function in its abstraction from the reality of the immediate situation. The response was delivered by people thinking within the context Infront of them; a triumph of human, not Digital, ingenuity.
'You don't listen, you never do, none of you, you think you know what I want and if I don't do what you say when you say, I'm back here sleeping in that arch'
Citizen, aged 26, homeless, in and out of prison, and struggling with addiction, talking to Charlie.
"In that 30 second exchange, he summed up everything I understand to be one of our biggest challenges in Local Authority."
Charlie Edwards, Head of Community Safety, Derby City Council, 5 October. 2021
Power with, rather than power over
Traditional public services 'deliver' services to citizens, in ways that there councils have deemed appropriate. However, in the case studies, the power is balanced between the officials and the citizens. True collaborative working.
Each of the HLS case studies point to successful outcomes through increased engagement by direct collaboration between the citizen and staff. This is not accidental, but a feature of the nature of the information that pertains to the rich picture that represents the needs of a citizen and the complexity surrounding that need. This ‘warm data’ contains the necessary nuances and immediacy that is needed at that moment in time, for that particular contextual situation. And this knowledge is best defined and transmitted person to person. The fact is, that the success of the recording and transmission of this richness fails spectacularly if we attempt to do this through Digital means.
Digital Service Design
Over the last few years, Digital Service Design has stormed into the mainstream private sector, with agencies springing up rapidly. Characterised by working in agile and progressive customer centric ways. For some, they seems like the young brash upstarts that they are. But they do represent the vanguard of a new paradigm shift that has gained momentum almost everywhere. They are proving to be successful in what they do; transactional Digital design.
In the public sector in the UK, the success that Digital has had, has faltered through various failed initiatives. This was until Government Digital Service (GDS) came along. Since its start in 2011 GDS had reportedly saved over £1b, with improvement of around £500m annually after that. Perhaps this has been the most rapid improvement initiative in the history of UK government? No wonder GDS is now poised to expand its reach across government, with Digital now being seen as a major enabler within the recent NHS White paper.
GDS has, more than anything else, managed to create its own unique island of a new paradigm, a different way of thinking and operating, within the heart of central government. It has managed to carve out highly agile teams of eager and motivated staff, who collaborate directly with each other in ways that are as distinct from the traditional central government ways of working as it is possible to be. This characteristic perhaps owes more to its overall success than anything else. What it is interesting is that these GDS principles of working, closely match those of the HLS framework.
Conclusions from the evidence
By forgetting the distinctions between complex and transactional services, we are in danger of being seduced by the attractiveness of the simplicity and success of Digital, and we may use it to redesign every service we come across. We must separate the design and application of Digital into transactional (logical) or person based (complex) services, and recognise Digital has to be applied in the appropriate way as a technology and an enabler. Digital has to be designed in, hand in hand with the redesign of services, by understanding the complex nature of individual citizens in need, in their context, and can deliver the service through decisions made in that context.