Technology and tomorrow's public service professional
As collaborative technologies facilitate greater involvement from service users in the way public services are commissioned, designed and delivered, so service roles will also change. This inevitably raises questions about professionals and how their roles will evolve.
Let's dispel the most pressing myth straight away. The role of the service professional is perhaps more important now than ever before, but it needs to evolve in response to this new service environment. What is clear from a number of the Reboot programmes is that collaborative technologies should not be viewed as a threat, because they actually enhance and support professional roles.
Granted there are economies of scale that can be achieved by moving services online. Future You for instance makes better use of professional time because qualified counsellors and advisors only have to deal with more complex cases, as the peer to peer network is also on hand to offer support.
More importantly, the application of collaborative technologies in a frontline service environment helps service professionals because it reduces administrative burdens, improves co-ordination and frees up more of their time to work directly with clients. The teams for LIFE and Person to Person now spend less time on administrative duties and more time working directly with families and volunteers, while Buddi means Police officers no longer have to carry out investigative work to exclude an individual from an investigation.
If providers are to successfully develop new collaborative tools that are grounded in the reality of public services, they need to be built and tested within service areas with involvement from users and frontline staff. However, professionals will need help trying to make sense of what they do and how they go about it. Simply granting staff access to these tools and technologies will not on its own smooth the way for the development of new and novel methods of service delivery.
Financial pressures, heavy caseloads and recruitment and retention problems for service providers, can cause stress and prevent new approaches that utilise collaborative technologies from being prioritised because let's face it, the day job does tend to get in the way. Person to Person for example was originally due to be developed with two local authorities, but financial pressures meant capacity was an issue in one of the areas and in the face of wider strategic priorities, they struggled to find opportunities to test the platform and eventually had to withdraw.
Project teams must sensitive to this wider environment and not place too many demands on frontline staff because if too big a burden is placed on them, the project will quickly lose momentum. To overcome this problem when they were developing Patchwork, FutureGov had a member of staff on site in Lichfield throughout the development phase which meant they were able to work much more closely with practitioners and do a lot of the on-the-ground work that was required.
However, whilst ensuring staff are not overburdened by these new demands, it is also important to remember the sector has huge resources at its disposal, and a diverse mix of skills, expertise and specialism's to draw from. All too often though, practitioners perform specialised roles that are detached from others, or have talents that go unnoticed. This not only makes it very difficult to share knowledge, skills and expertise more widely, but it also means these they remain hidden or are under-utilised.
If staff are to be encouraged to show creative thinking and come up with innovative solutions in their work, it is important public services create the space that encourages ideas to come forward from all parts of the organisation, and provide incentives that will support and cultivate good ideas and help shape them into viable business propositions.
Creative leadership is critical, as is finding ways of sharing ideas, encouraging staff to collaborate across organisational boundaries, and maybe even using collaboration platforms such as Yammer to make it easy to crowdsource ideas and solutions and build networks of like-minded individuals. If innovative approaches are to be bought in from the margins of an organisation, all of this needs to be bought together as a sustained programme of engagement, advocacy and enablement.
The new type of public service professional that now needs to emerge will be someone who can overcome the reluctance of many professionals to embrace collaborative technologies, is able to broker agreements with multiple stakeholders, is willing to share power and work collaboratively with citizens and service users, and is prepared to look elsewhere for the ideas and expertise that will turn a digital dream into a collaborative reality. Suddenly the public sector feels quite liberating, dynamic and exciting to work doesn't it?"