Overcoming the techno-cultural challenges that hinder the use of collaborative technologies
The need for organisational change that creates the necessary conditions for digital innovation to happen is clear, but if services are going to evolve then working practices need to evolve too. More often than not, current systems and ways of working in the public sector inhibit rather than enable technological innovation.
How should public services break with current convention to set in place the culture and the infrastructure that will support and even accelerate the introduction of collaborative technologies?
The first point to make is that modern collaborative technologies need modern operating systems to work. Internet Explorer 6 is over ten years old and is prevalent in the public sector, but this is not a modern operating system. Outdated web browsers such as this will obstruct the development of new approaches to delivering public services because they do not support many of today's new collaborative technologies. If innovation in this space is to happen, it is essential that systems and software support the use of current and future technologies.
Upgrading hardware to support modern web browsers such as Internet Explorer 9, Firefox, Google Chrome or Apple's Safari will obviously have cost implications, but this needs to be balanced against the longer term savings and new ways of working such an infrastructure will open up.
The most significant longer term advantage relates to the way in which software solutions are provided. Increasingly these are becoming cloud-based applications that are built and hosted on the web. This means they can be accessed through any modern web browser, so there is no need to rely on software installed onto a PC to run a particular programme.
So, for example, rather than use Microsoft Windows, solutions like those offered by Google are increasingly being used by large organisations, including some in the public sector, such as Warwickshire County Council and the London Borough of Hillingdon, who estimate they will generate savings of between £250,000 and £750,000 a year as a result.
In the context of Reboot Britain, this means the tools that were developed are much more flexible and agile, and can be easily integrated with existing working practices, because they offer a greater degree of interoperability.
Buddy offers an unobtrusive text messaging solution to service users that subsequently helps practitioners make better use of the time available to them during therapy sessions; Patchwork makes it easy for practitioners to see the bigger picture of services and agencies that surround an individual in need, which will subsequently improve the efficiency and effectiveness of service interventions; Ideas for Bristol provided a consultation platform that offered users a range of ways for contributing ideas and making their views known that they could dip in and out of at their own convenience.
All of these platforms offer a focussed solution that neatly sits within a current service offer and makes processes more efficient. However, all of these teams had to overcome a range of technical challenges and business practices to introduce these new approaches.
Involving internal IT departments at this stage was critical because they needed to be on-board to ensure the technical changes that needed to be made happened. What this also highlights is that IT professionals should not be seen as a service that sits separate from the rest of the organisation, essentially on hand to provide technical solutions when asked. IT services need to see themselves as an important source of business innovation that benefits not just the organisation they sit within, but their wider communities as well. Put simply, the geeks need to break out of the basement and show their faces.
Public sector organisations must also wake up to the strategic importance of IT in modernising working practices and cultures, and the tech-driven innovation processes that support the development of new models of service delivery. But this is difficult, not because of the technology, but because it affects everything an organisation does - how something is done, jobs, resource allocation. Winning recognition at a senior level about the value of IT is critical because solutions have to be driven from the top of an organisation. Alongside this, staff must be given permission to use these technologies, collaborate across organisational boundaries and experiment with new approaches.
Person to Person was successfully introduced in Herefordshire because it was aligned with the Council's e-market place strategy, which gave the team the senior buy in they required to trial the new approach. In Lichfield, the Chief Executive is visibly and actively supportive of Patchwork, which has made it easier for the team to involve frontline staff and develop the prototype. While in Bristol, the project team had the space to experiment with a range of crowd-sourcing approaches through the Ideas for Bristol platform because their members were engaged in the initiative and supportive of the council's wider e-participation agenda.
Archaic IT systems, out-dated working practices and reluctance to trial new approaches all have the potential to blunt the power of collaborative technologies and the new ways of addressing social problems that they open up. What we have shown through Reboot Britain is that, if the right foundations are put in place, these tools not only serve to streamline working practices, but they will reinvigorate approaches to service delivery in the process.