Managing uncertainty so that it doesn't inhibit the innovation process
Developing a digital innovation will inevitably raise a variety of issues, risks and concerns that will need to be thought through and addressed as part of the innovation process. What impact will a new approach have? Will users be safe? Will it work as well as the current service offer? How will relationships between professionals and service users be affected? Is the new approach legal? What legislation needs to be considered? How will the information that is collected be protected?
Working through these types of issues will be challenging and time consuming, but is necessary and will be worth the effort in the long run. What then are some of the issues or uncertainties that stop people from 'having a go'?
The tension between what practitioners want, what they think they can do and what is legally allowed, will all too often throw up obstacles that are seen as a reason not to pursue an innovation. Helpful legal advice at this point helps you understand and think through what is and is not possible within the relevant legislative context.
For example, when developing Buddy, the digital tool that supports talking therapy services, the team from Sidekick Studios had to address the fact that mental health patients will sometimes feel suicidal. This raised serious questions about how such information is collected, who has access to it and how service providers respond, because obviously this is not information that can be passed on to just anyone and if an individual is known to be at risk, this needs to be followed up.
Resolving these issues took the team time because there were multiple considerations that needed to be thought through. Some were associated with how the tool works, some were wrapped up in legislative considerations and some stemmed from the sensitivity of the data that was being collected. Crucially, they did not prevent the development of a new approach to supporting patients with mental health problems.
In the instance of Buddy, not only did the team change the focus of the tool from one that tried to help practitioners and patients communicate in real time to one that supported their counselling sessions, but they also worked closely with clinicians, managers and the legal team at South London and Maudsley Mental Health Trust to draw up a user policy that offered reassurance to service users and practitioners.
A further challenge is that understandable concerns about data protection and information security mean all partners have to be completely satisfied with information governance arrangements. Again, the fact that collaborative tools will collect new kinds of data needs to be thought through in relation to data protection legislation and should not pose an insurmountable obstacle.
It will be necessary though to help people understand and adapt to this new way of approaching service design and delivery, as this will reduce tensions or reservations about adopting a new approach. For example, staff in Swindon needed to feel reassured about the safety and reliability of the LIFE online tools, so they were tested in parallel with existing systems to understand how they could support professionals, address logistical issues and understand the value of the information that was being collected.
However, addressing such a range of issues cannot purely be driven by an understanding of what services are currently constrained from doing. Technology-driven change is increasingly becoming the norm, even in our public services. Perhaps understandably though, the extent and pace of this transition is a concern for providers because the complexities associated with technology-enhanced changes to working practices can make understanding both the potential and impact of these new approaches difficult, and policy and strategy may lag as a result.
New collaborative technologies have the potential to change the way public services operate in two key ways. It will either take the form of an innovation that results in a new product. Both Buddy and Buddi are tools that collect a far more comprehensive data trail than service providers do at present, which is used to support better targeted interventions that help offenders and mental health patients change their behaviours. Or it will take the form of a process innovation that increases the efficiency of existing services. The LIFE Board self-reporting tool, for example, opens up new forms of communication between families and workers, and makes it easier for individuals to reflect on the progress they are making.
Processes and policies will need to be updated to acknowledge how these technologies and the collaborative approaches they enable should be developed and used to support the provision of public services. This will ensure staff are clear as to what direction they should be moving in, and that their activities conform to the wider strategic priorities of an organisation.
The team from Patchwork set up an information governance group to work through data protection and data security concerns with practitioners from Lichfield, so a new policy has been developed and is now in place. Similarly, Beat Bullying developed safety standards so that young people feel confident using Future You's peer to peer support network. Specially developed moderation software and humans monitor the site at all times, and professional counsellors are on hand to provide support to the most vulnerable young people, if they need it.
Outdated legislation and working practices will continue to be challenged and pushed by digital innovations. It is important that working cultures, such as those in Swindon, are supportive of digital innovations that are potentially disruptive or even controversial at first. Staff, like those at South London and Maudsley Mental Health Trust or in Hertfordshire, need to be able to take risks and, in some instances, policies, such as in Lichfield, may need updating to reflect the new way of working that collaborative technologies open up.
Crucially though, concerns about the legitimacy of a new approach should not be seen as a reason not to consider a change or capitalise on an opportunity. The future is already here. Embrace it.