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Spending Review: digital services funding is just the beginning

Making services available online is one thing, but getting citizens to actually use them is another.

As with any spending review, the Autumn Statement brought mixed messages of generosity and austerity. George Osborne laid out plans to ‘ready for whatever storms lie ahead,’ having decided that police cuts are to be frozen and the NHS is to receive more funding. At the same time, he confirmed that the £12 billion of welfare cuts announced earlier this year will be delivered in full.

Underpinning all of these departmental announcements, a wider investment in digitising public services took centre stage. News of the £450 million injection for Government Digital Services was received with huge applause. Thankfully this suggests that there is a cross-party understanding that the move is vital for delivering sustainable and affordable public services, and modernising archaic and paper based processes.

While the announcement of a fully digitised tax system is promising, it is only the tip of the iceberg of what needs to be done to deliver a smarter digital government. Thus, while we should celebrate the investment, it’s now important that we fully use what we have been given, and consider the following:

Digital investment must stretch beyond central government to regional services

Government Digital Services is a central government agency, and has delivered some fantastic results. Since October 2013 it has worked to consistently increase the use of digital services. Now the Carer’s Allowance and Pay As You Earn transaction services are primarily accessed through digital routes.

These successes are yet to reach a local level, however, where the benefits of digitisation are perhaps needed the most. Recent surveys suggest that two thirds of UK councils are still offering less than half of services online. Better financial support and guidance must be given to help them continue digitising their way to better customer experience and reduced operational costs.

Digitisation cannot replace human interaction completely

While it may be tempting to assume that everything should be digitised, it’s not always appropriate. I am strongly against so-called 'digital only' strategies, as services must be tailored to suit the needs of the community and the specific circumstances of the exchange.

When dealing with more sensitive inquiries like those around social services, face-to-face or phone interactions should be the first choice. Achieving this channel nirvana will require persistent proactive engagement with the public, promoting the benefits and educating against misconceptions. By effectively monitoring how services are used, public sector organisations can continue to adapt and evolve their services to drive greater efficiencies and smarter engagement with citizens.

It is all very well investing in technology, but if nobody is actually making use of the technology in place then it is all for nothing. We have seen this in other sectors, such as the retail sector with the acceptance of Amazon, so encouraging a change in customer behaviour towards these government digital services will be essential to their success.

Supporting multi-channel services appropriately

The outcome from the increased budget must categorically be that digital services become easier to use. Making services available online is one thing, but getting citizens to actually use them is another. Providing support when needed is crucial to this. Contact centre and support staff must be able to guide citizens through whichever channel is appropriate, digital or otherwise. This will require additional investment in upskilling employees, as well as a cultural shift. Both are as important as investing in the technology itself. Digitisation is about a lot more than just buying more “stuff”.

It’s clear that, while the spending review has laid some strong foundations in bringing the government into the digital age, throwing money at the problem is simply not going to deliver the results needed. For the benefits of the funding to be most apparent, an in-depth understanding of the citizens the technology will be reaching is integral. From understanding the difference between central and local government to helping new users navigate technology, there is a long road ahead to a truly digital public sector; but if achieved, the benefits will far outweigh the costs.

This article was first published on PublicServiceDigital.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.

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