Public service ICT hampered by ‘misunderstanding’

30 Mar 2005

There is a real danger that misunderstanding, mismanagement and miscommunication will confound the drive towards the provision of better public services through the deployment of ICT, a new report warned.

The research by UK-based The Work Foundation and sponsored by Adobe focusing on public and front-line staff found that the ideal of better public services are seen to be more customer-focused, better value for money and to have satisfied staff.

It also found that ICT can help make services quicker, more accessible out of hours and more efficient, as well as supporting frontline staff in their jobs.

However, there are real challenges to improving public services and to fully realising the benefits that ICT offers.

The report found that the public want ‘choice’, but that front-line staff think the public wanted ‘personalised’ services. ICT offers choice of access to services (personalisation), but not choice between services. Expectations need to be managed and more work needs to be done to understand the public’s needs to improve customer satisfaction, personalisation and choice.

Improvements in public services also need to be better communicated to the public to improve customer satisfaction. “When it comes to ICT, the focus is too often on the T, not enough on the I and C. ICT is one way to help provide the information the public needs to make choices and to communicate better. However, technology alone won’t improve communication or the information available,” the report warns.

For technology to improve public services, it needs to be clear how this can be done – and that ICT has limitations. The technology needs to be well designed, in consultation with staff, and implemented effectively. Only a third of staff feel consulted by their managers about how to improve services, despite the importance placed on job satisfaction. There needs to be a clearer business case when technology is used, and it needs to be more effectively managed if it is to realise its potential.

Laura Williams, a researcher at The Work Foundation, explained: “ICT offers the potential to transform interactions and help provide ‘seamless services’ face-to-face, by phone and online. But this will only happen if sufficient information is provided to staff and the public, there is good communication, and clarity about what ICT is being used for. More detailed questions remain about ‘what’ ICT should look like and ‘how’ it can be implemented effectively; questions that will be explored in subsequent reports.”

The Work Foundation report argues that to realise the potential benefits of ICT, senior managers must make a better case for ICT’s contribution to improving quality, customer focus and efficiency.

As well as this, ICT needs to be considered at a sufficiently early stage in policy making, to be useful in achieving objectives.

The report argues that demand needs to be managed if the efficiency benefits of ICT are to be realised. Better communication, the report noted, about what public services are doing to improve customer focus and value for money is vital.

The report also suggested that public services rolling out ICT initiatives should consider the use of intermediaries in the process whereby ICT could facilitate the use of trusted intermediaries in supporting individuals to engage with public services.

As well as this skills in public services need to be developed in new areas, for example when staff members are moving from front-line offices to call centre roles.

The report also makes the case that there needs to be far more effective engagement with staff, getting them involved in designing technology and testing ways of working. This, it says, is likely to impact on job satisfaction in public services.

By John Kennedy