Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Saving from Poverty

The name is clumsy pun based on the core concept of providing a simple way to save weekly to pay bills and debts, and for its users to be rewarded with savings (or discounts) on services. The essence of the Saving from Poverty initiative is:

  • To build on a silo application from the DWP (the Post Office Card Account soon be re-contracted as the Government Card Account), capping the cost to DWP at what they negotiate for GCA
  • Improve its functionality, making it into something akin to a simple low risk bank account into which benefits and wages can be are paid and a proportion set aside to pay bills etc.
  • Enable government and the private sector to benefit from reduced cost to serve for poorer consumers, as their bills are paid electronically, and charge them part of their savings (to fund running costs)
  • Use part of the benefits to provide discounts and incentives to poorer consumers
  • Rather than pushing users who want it away, as the DWP do, encourage those poorer consumers who need the features to use it

And manage it as a shared service governed by a Social Enterprise to make sure all profits are used to help poorer consumers.

To show that the idea is realistic we commissioned two consultancy studies, one from the Future Foundation that identifies the number and characteristics of those we'd expect to use the service and another from A T Kearney that shows that there is a sound business case based on demonstrable savings in cost by service providers, both are freely available.

This would be really great demonstration of transformational government, a shared service designed around the needs of poorer consumers.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Citizen centric data handling

It's unfortunate that the otherwise excellent data handling procedures in Government report http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/~/media/assets/www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/csia/dhr/dhr080625%20pdf.ashx didn't look at the issue from an citizens perspective. Quoting from the foreword by Gus O'Donnell - "Effective use of information is absolutely central to the challenges facing the Government today – whether in improving health, tackling child poverty, or protecting the public from crime and terrorism. Those in public service need to keep that information secure, in order to build public confidence. This is essential to underpin greater data sharing to deliver personalised services and make us more effective." illustrates how the report looks out from government not in from the citizens perspective.

The report acknowledged that data handling is not just technical but a wider cultural issue and recommends a raft of sensible changes. The missing piece was a mechanism for listening to citizens needs and concerns and for representing that point of view when making decisions.

My first thought was to suggest that the Information Commissioner represent citizens but that makes information somehow special and different from concerns about how Government meets citizen's wider needs.The real answer is to have a body to understand and represent the views of citizens in all interactions with Government. And why just Government?

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Contact Centre Council

A interesting quote from an article in public service http://www.publicservice.co.uk/feature_story.asp?id=10223 about the "Contact Council, the body established by the Cabinet Office to promote best practice across the public sector in all matters relating to customer contact".

"Part of raising their game is setting goals that are relevant to contact centres, using feedback from their managers, rather than imposing centralised targets from above. "They have got to be relevant to the organisations concerned, because it's very easy when you are sitting in the centre to think we can measure this and have it as a target, but actually it can drive some very perverse behaviour," Cleveland says. "We are only asking them to report the things that they need to manage their business." "

I understand why it's necessary to get the contact centre managers engaged in change and the value of the managers studying behaviours rather than asking for opinions, but would have prefered to see a much stronger emphasis on feedback from users. Whilst one can make assumptions about the cause of user behaviour it can be hard for managers to understand what drives the behaviour of people of very different backgrounds. Taking a national view has its merits - whilst it's uneconomic to conduct user surveys for every different contact centre there are valuable lessons to be learnt from a national study of contact centre user behaviours.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Citizen centred services - making it happen

Big bangs are exciting, dangerous, and usually unnecessary. The scale of investment usually means lots of thinking and planning, resulting in long timescales and the risk that what’s devised won’t work for the target population. A sensible alternative is to geographically and functionally restrict a first phase, e.g. start with a target population of say 50,000 benefit claimants in a city where there are people who demonstrate a service culture. And to control the functionality further don’t try for all benefit claimants, rather look at a segment such as single mothers.

Having selected a target segment in a geographically bounded area recruit and train the people who will be citizen champions, looking first at those administering the benefits. With them devise processes to ensure that the target population get what they are due with the minimum amount of questions and interference. Finally built monitoring processes so that levels of achievement and the value they create can be measured and processes tuned.

It’s time consuming and expensive to change the claim processes for all the benefits that will be claimed, instead negotiate mechanisms so that the citizen champions can hide complexity from the claimants. Where the claims processes all want their own claim forms containing largely the same information develop simple form completion software so that the citizens champion can generate all the forms for the claimant to sign.

Whilst the first phase is running it’s time to plan for geographic extensions to get to a scale sufficient for confidence that the new processes work effectively nationally. Having this second phase running decide what investment in process support will enable a cost effective national implementation. NB There is an interesting decision point here, is it worth pushing for national implementation with a limited functionality or building out the functionality?

This isn’t particularly original, when the Inland Revenue wanted a national IT system for Pay As You Earn (20 years ago) they first put in a small pilot with limited functionality, tuned it and used the lessons learnt to build what became a successful national system. The key to success is to start small and quickly, understand and measure outcomes for value and then take measured steps, for example in moving to a national system the Inland Revenue implemented region by region.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Citizen centred services

The Transformational Government report for 2007 has as one of its three key themes to “Deliver citizen-centred services, reshaping them around the needs and preferences of users”. Unfortunately the report's expansion of the theme focuses more on channel access preferences e.g. Internet, visit or phone than on genuinely reshaping services so that they work for users. There is mention of a feasibility study into “Tell us once” and local authorities having one stop shops, but that really isn’t good enough.

The report goes on to talk about customer insight and journey mapping and uses the complexity of applying for free school meals as an example. What’s missing from the report is an analysis of who uses government services and how the services they use should be grouped together. For example families on low incomes get a range of benefits from of number of Government bodies and are also being encouraged to earn more, I’m sure that administering the package of benefits and interventions for the family as a whole would be cheaper, more effective and would be more encouraging than what we do now. Local Government one stop shops etc. help but are really a fa├žade behind which the inefficient and uncoordinated services can hide.

One cannot argue with statements in the report like “we must be relentlessly customer-focused” or “citizens must be at the heart of everything we do; I want us to move from a process-driven system to a people-driven one”. But with fragmented service providers, such as the DWP, HMRC and Local Government, operating services that they are separately trying to make look citizen centric it’s going to take a long time before the citizen experience changes significantly. Even successes, such as being able to tax a car electronically, illustrate that to give citizens a positive experience someone needs to make sense of the individual bits (insurance, MOT and vehicle information) on their behalf. Sadly it’s easier to envisage a natural owner for a joined up vehicle service than a service for poorer families.

Wouldn’t it be good if there was a body that acted on behalf of citizens and commissioned and joined up individual services to meet their needs; so that tax credits, housing benefit, social fund loans and school meals etc. were all provided to meet a families needs. Making this happen would be hard, it would involve moving budgets to customer champions so that they could guide the development of the right sort of services and replace the others. It would mean moving staff from their existing organisation and career structure and almost certainly result in redundancies (it takes fewer people to do something well). For my next entry I’ll look at how we get from where we are now to a place where services really are designed around the needs of citizens.

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

large databases good, small bad

Quoting from todays BCS newsletter "Last year provided plenty of news stories about lost laptops and CDs containing masses of personal data. Confidential data wasn't exposed by corporate systems being compromised by outsiders (foreign or otherwise) but by insiders doing dumb things, like sending unencrypted data in unregistered post."

Whilst it isn't necessarily true that large databases will have well thought out security, in my experience paper systems and small databases don't tend to have very much at all. The exception being where a commodity system, like a primary care health system is replicated. The important thing in security is to have the staff that build systems and control access to data aware of what they need to achieve in terms of data protection, and that is more likly to be achieved in large databases.

Monday, 28 January 2008

Citizen centric does not mean information sharing

There has been a fair bit of commentary recently that makes transformational government synonymous with an ID card and data sharing. The key criticism being that rather than enabling it will be controlling, with citizens being managed rather than served based on what's known about them . For example using HMRC records to ask only low income pensioners whether they like would like pension credit sounds like a service improvement but could be seen as fraud control.

I'm not in favour of the words data sharing, rather that data is openly used to achieve an ethical and public value objective whereas sharing implies a loose uncontrolled pool of data. I see nothing wrong with checking against a tax return income statement to validate that someone is telling the truth when they claim a benefit, but a lot wrong with doing it secretly. What's wrong with saying we'll check you income, or even bettter tell us your tax reference and we'll make sure you get the right benefit?