Alex Matthews: Public sector must embrace digital

We all use ­digital ­platforms like ­Google, Amazon, Facebook and Twitter and over the last 10 to 15 years they have disrupted our daily lives.

The public sector should copy digital platforms to provide services efficiently and cut costs. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA
The public sector should copy digital platforms to provide services efficiently and cut costs. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Some of that disruption can be negative. How many of us look at our phones when we should be paying more attention to the world around us? But, predominantly, the disruption is positive. Digital technologies deliver a benefit – if they didn’t we wouldn’t use them.

If Airbnb wasn’t a fast and cheap way of booking accommodation, then it wouldn’t have three million listings across 65,000 destinations. It’s fast and cheap because it ­provides an interface between hosts and guests and removes the need for an intermediary.

These platforms offer ways to receive a service, and users identify with the platform rather than the organisation. They also focus on customer need in designing and delivering the service.

They establish trust by offering value that increases with the breadth of services offered and the number of users. Most importantly, they remove unnecessary duplication and waste, taking tasks, activities, intermediaries and sometimes organisations out of the service.

These changing business models have far reaching implications for the workforce. That’s been illustrated through Uber’s impact on local cab firms and the complexity of ­protecting workers’ rights and tax revenues in the ‘gig economy’.

In the public sector, digital developments provide a route to delivering better quality for less cost and addressing increasing demand and reduced budgets. NHS ­Scotland recently created the TURAS ­platform to ­support education and ­training of healthcare workers. It automates processes and allows ­clinicians to self-serve on training and education material, which has cut administrative overheads.

Government to citizen services need to follow this lead, ­moving from being public bodies to technology ­businesses that deliver services. Registers of Scotland are making good progress in this direction. For most of the Scottish public sector however, this is a substantial change that will require careful thinking about the right purpose, strategy, culture and structure.

It will also need a specific focus on balancing the face-to-face ­contact needed for some services and avoiding ­exclusion of those not ­connected to ­digital. This will also need investment in ­connectivity and infrastructure.

These challenges should not be used as excuses to avoid embracing digital. Scottish public sector bodies should look at taking out unnecessary tasks, activities and even entire business units or organisations, where they no longer have a role in delivering services to citizens.

Politicians should be bold and remove some of the barriers around legislation and partnership working with the private sector.

Finally, the public sector needs to think about adopting a platform approach where there is not an organisation for every service but where platforms provide a way to access services as Airbnb provides a way to secure a bed for the night.

Alex Matthews is a digital technology expert at PA Consulting Group.