Digital: It’s all about redesign, not business as usual

Our seminar on Redesigning public services: The strategic importance of digital wasn’t about digital tools, but a shift in mindset. But what does that mean in practice? Ena Lloyd reflects on what she learnt from the event.

I’ve been heavily involved in developing and delivering the recent seminar on Digital as part of the Good Practice Exchange at the Wales Audit Office. For us as an organisation, digital transformation is a key strategic objective and priority, as well as a massive contributor to the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act.

As part of the planning element of the seminar, we conducted a wide literature review via commercial and academic routes as well as a wide variety of social media, talked to people with serious ‘Digital knowhow’ in the private, public sector and third sectors and the academic world so that we can get a good handle on what we needed to focus on in this seminar. This seminar was the first in a series of events to support public service transformation. I would honestly say it was a pivotal seminar for me. Why? Because I thought it would have been reasonable to expect that technology would figure hugely in the conversations in plenary and the workshops. In reality, it didn’t. So what did?

It might be helpful to have a listen to a 90 second video clip of Cllr Barry Parsons and Carl Haggerty of Devon County Council. They share the key messages and the word technology doesn’t figure once!

So what is the starting point?

It became clear from the seminar that digitising public services does not mean moving a service ‘like for like’ on to a digital platform. What would be the point in that? We need to explore how we can do things better with service users. We need to talk to them, as well as similar service deliverers that are potentially complimentary. I think it’s safe to say that public services cannot financially afford to deliver services in their current format. So figuring out quickly whether a potential redesign does actually have legs is essential.

Besides the importance of time or working at pace as I would prefer to think of it, I also learnt that when it comes to redesign:

  • Small is beautiful, so start small. Even if it doesn’t you can learn the lessons. We simply cannot wait for massive projects to come to fruition
  • Failing fast is a good thing. We must move with speed and pace for timely innovation
  • Make sure you have nailed your proof of concept. In other words, clearly define issues to make sure we’ve got things right at the start; and
  • Most importantly with your redesign – proceed until apprehended

Y Lab’s workshop helps to demonstrate these points. In the workshop Jess Hoare, Amy Richards and Rob Ashelford talked about a number of examples of small innovative projects that worked at pace and have been able to demonstrate viability in a very short space of time. I particularly liked the example of what’s taking place at Cardiff Council. Through the Digital Innovation Fund for Wales, Y Lab worked with 5 organisations on various digital transformation projects. At Cardiff Council, the project is trialling Internet of Things technology to support public services. Sensors will be deployed at various sites in the city to provide data on water levels in culverts. This real-time information can be used to inform the prediction and prevention of flooding in Cardiff. Learning from this project, and the hardware and network infrastructure provided through the grant, has the potential to enable sensor data to enhance other services across the city.

LoRaWAN is designed to provide Low Power Wide Area Network with features specifically needed to support low-cost, mobile, secure bi-directional communication for Internet of Things (IoT), machine-to-machine (M2M), and smart city, and industrial applications. It is optimized for low power consumption and to support large networks with millions and millions of devices. It has innovative a number of features, namely these are its low-cost, low-power model (it can even run on energy harvesting technologies) which enables the uptake and ease of use of the Internet of Things.

LoRaWan is an exciting emerging technology. At the time of writing, this would be the first network of its kind in Wales and one of only a handful in the UK. Given this, Y Lab has been approached by a number of organisations interested in working with Cardiff Council on possible network applications.

What does service transformation mean from an audit office perspective?

The bottom line is that technology can and does offer a range of potential cost savings, increases in efficiency and improvements in the quality of services offered to users. The Auditor General has said on many occasions about the need to take well managed risks. We just need to ensure there are opportunities for staff to take such chances on new approaches and technology. The Auditor General for Wales has talked on many occasions about the importance of taking those opportunities. As he says in the below video, we must innovate and adapt to new ways of working in order to provide effective public services.

Finally, I think it would be remiss of me not to make the connection between the redesign of services and the introduction of the Well-being of the Future Generations Act. At the seminar Huw Vaughan Thomas said that digital thinking and the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act are not competing priorities. This was really helpful and it brought it home to me when he talked about the Act’s five ways of working, in particular:

  • How the principles of integration and collaboration will prompt services to ponder how digital thinking can help services to work together. As organisations are required to come together under the umbrella of Public Service Boards, should each service be using incompatible systems?
  • The long term and prevention principles should allow organisations to consider how platforms can be reused and shared in order to avoid reinventing the wheel and provide better value for public money
  • And the principle of involvement should focus organisations on how they can ensure that services are person centred – how they meet user need………………. And isn’t that what public services should be about?

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