Sharing knowledge across the hemispheres: Digital innovation in the UK

The UK and Australia share many similarities when it comes to public sector digital transformation. Despite the different setup in Australia - with federal, state and local government - the two nations face many of the same challenges.

This commonality means that proven approaches taken in the UK can flex to work in Australia, and vice-versa. So, with that in mind, here are a few thoughts on how relatable knowledge can be shared across the hemispheres.

Digital everything

It’s starting to feel strange referring to ‘digital transformation’ given that technology is so deeply entwined with our day-to-day lives and is no longer an option.

Within all levels of government, the phrase itself has become something of an albatross as it’s loaded with so many different connotations. For some, it’s about developing a new AI-powered mobile app. For others, it’s about getting Alexa set up in reception. But the real opportunities for transformation exist beyond the layer of technology itself.

The UK’s most digitally advanced organisations are looking to use the tools available to become better at delivering to public expectations. They’re challenging long-held beliefs and risk-averse cultures to significantly improve the customer experience.

Overcoming risk aversion

It can be difficult to overcome the fear factor when there are so many vocal critics keen to point the finger when something goes wrong. But playing it safe can have major repercussions. Not only does it affect an organisation’s ability to innovate, but it can also inhibit data sharing.

In the UK, forward-thinking organisations are tackling this by redesigning services with digital at the core, rather than on the fringes. They’re becoming digital, rather than thinking digital. By doing so, they’re creating a new culture around a common aim and rewriting the rulebook. It takes courage to try new ideas, but the rewards can be significant and there’s no longer an excuse for standing still.

Sharing data for a common objective

Many of the interactions that we all have with local government result in data creation. But because teams are prone to working in isolation, this is often spread across tens, if not hundreds, of different databases. This lack of data cohesion can have serious repercussions as it makes it impossible for a practitioner to develop a rounded understanding of an individual’s circumstances.

For example, when a care worker is supporting a vulnerable child, they may need to gather information from several sources, including health, police, housing and voluntary organisations. By doing so they can understand the full picture and resolve potential issues before they escalate. But if data is locked down, due to a lack of trust or a silo mentality, the care worker could miss an important opportunity to act.

In 2011, FutureGov launched Patchwork - an app that connects care workers across agencies. It began with an initial discussion at the UK District Council of Litchfield and has since been rolled out in Australia where there are now pan-state licenses for New South Wales and Victoria covering over 50 per cent of the population.

Patchwork provides a simple way to connect with other practitioners working with the same clients. It not only reduces wasted effort, but it also ensures that citizens receive the right support at the right time.

The principles underpinning Patchwork are gaining a significant amount of advocacy. As care workers invite colleagues at other agencies to join in, those colleagues, in turn, may question their own organisation’s willingness to share data.

Innovating within high-pressure environments

Innovating in an environment where the risks are extremely high is challenging. For certain local government services, even a single error can have major implications and this increased level of risk often diminishes the willingness to innovate. We encountered this scenario during our recent work with three London Boroughs where we were asked to redesign the technology that supports Children’s Social Care.

Part of the redesign processes involved taking practitioners out of their day job and invest their time in helping us understand the problem. Identifying key challenges early on enabled us to convince senior leaders how important this step was. Using a prototype to build approach mitigated risk early on by ensuring the leadership that the right problems were being worked on.

When operating in high-risk environments it is important to continue to test theories and assumptions so you can move forward without increasing risk. In this case we used retrospective data to move forward with testing our theories without affecting life child protection cases.

Using innovation labs for wholesale change

Innovation labs provide a creative environment to develop new ideas on how consumers interact with an organisation. They’re becoming increasingly popular for testing assumptions and challenging the status quo. Since 2012, FutureGov has established a series of several successful labs in the UK and beyond.

In 2016, Medway Council in the UK approached us with a goal of designing “digital services so good that all who can use them prefer to do so.” With such an ambitious brief, the only way forward was to consider how we could impact the entire organisation by introducing a culture of digital innovation. This is exactly the kind of scenario where labs come into their own.

Labs such as Medway’s provide the space to explore exemplar projects and should work in parallel alongside the main organisation. By abstracting the creative thinking in this way, you can work rapidly without the usual trappings.

We’ve found that digital training for senior leaders is critical in organisations reaching their digital ambitions. In Medway, through delivering bespoke training for senior leaders, the team felt confident in adopting an agile response to digital innovation and to take on our proposed service roadmap, which included an estimated £5 million in savings.

There are plenty of examples across the public sector of successful digital initiatives in isolation. However, in both the UK and Australia, the most radical thinkers are aiming for transformation at an organisational level - and to achieve that takes courage and strategy in equal measure. Only by overcoming our respective government’s natural propensity for risk aversion, can we cultivate an initial idea from conception to widespread change.