Putting the accent on innovation

31 Mar 2005

Imagine the Government being able to take soundings from the public on a given issue in a way that’s much more accurate than opinion polls and focus groups, reflecting what the man in the street is really saying. Why wait for an election every five years to find out what the electorate wants?

Sentiment monitoring is a technology that could allow this to happen. It checks websites, blogs and discussion groups for particular subjects and puts what it finds through a text engine that parses, classifies and categorises the content. It produces not just statistics but insights, measuring the quantity of discussion items and then getting to the heart of the debate: what people are saying about an issue. It attaches weight to the opinions, so that an article in a national newspaper online is accorded more importance than an off-the-cuff remark on a discussion list.

Mike Redding, director of Accenture Technology Labs (ATL), which developed the system, put it into a government context. “What if this were on specific election issues?” he asks. “What if you could break down — and you can, using this technology — the underlying subtopics to see what’s the most positive or negative depending on what camp you are in? For any political campaign, you can get a sense of what’s important for people.”

The sentiment monitoring demo is just one element of a whistle-stop tour of ATL in Sophia Antipolis in the south of France, a research and development (R&D) facility that was set up by the management consultancy to answer the question: “What’s coming next and why is it important?” ATL is not a think-tank or product-evaluation unit. In fact, many of the technologies used in some of the lab’s demos were originally developed elsewhere. Instead its focus is on imagining future applications and business needs for these early-stage technologies. “Most people don’t spend enough time thinking about the future,” said Redding. “Technology is changing the landscape that businesses and governments operate in.”

Government was a particular focus of the most recent tour. It’s one of five vertical industry sectors Accenture operates in and has grown at an average of 24pc per year over the past three years. Given that Accenture sees itself as helping governments achieve high
performance, it’s not hard to see why the firm is turning its own R&D minds to how future technologies could benefit public sector agencies, making them more efficient and citizen focused.

For instance, ATL researchers are working on ID schemes that use biometrics. The technology isn’t perfect, Accenture officials acknowledged, but combining several different identifiers such as the iris, facial scan, fingerprints or voice offers the most accurate results, claimed Accenture senior manager Cyrille Bataller.

Another of the demos centred on a digital pen application. In this, a Bluetooth-enabled pen, about twice as thick as a typical biro, is used to fill in an application form printed on special paper that is covered with small dots that ‘sense’ where the pen is on the page. This process captures the information as it’s written, providing an immediate electronic archive of the information without having to scan it later. The pen can also send data to a central server via a mobile phone or a USB docking station. A possible application could be in hospitals where nurses check patients and mark the observation charts that are on the end of each bed. Doctors would then be immediately alerted if a patient’s temperature was higher or if other readings changed, improving the level of care.

This drive for innovation and efficiency in government comes from the fact that public sector agencies have been traditionally difficult to deal with. According to Accenture, citizens are now starting to demand higher levels of service because that’s what they’ve come to expect from private sector providers.

Equally, governments and their agencies are under budgetary pressure so this improved service must come in at a lower cost. The picture becomes even more complicated because governments have to determine what value is derived from offering services in new ways. With a business, value is calculated by readily calculable quantities such as profits but governments don’t work this way. They still have to deliver results: taxpayers need to see that their money is being well spent.

To address this, Accenture has developed a public sector value model (PSVM) aimed at allowing governments navigate a path between the rocks of doing more and spending less.

According to Vivienne Jupp, global e-government partner with the firm, the PSVM helps governments to prioritise spending and identify areas that will create value. It’s a sophisticated model that doesn’t fall back on, for example, measuring the number of policemen on the streets. Instead it focuses on the outcomes of allocating resources to a particular area.

“The benefit is that it provides government agencies with a credible tool for determining if performance is improving or deteriorating over time,” says Jupp. “It pinpoints areas within organisations that are underperforming and can give justification for budget requests to legislature.”

Accenture has also promised changes in format to its upcoming e-government survey. Whereas traditional polls have ranked countries according to online services, Accenture says its latest report, due shortly, will chart citizen reaction to dealing with the machinery of government. The idea behind this approach is that it will give a greater insight into whether state agencies are really improving customer service as they claim. The results should make for interesting reading.

By Gordon Smith