wake up and sheikh up: five years is too late to embrace technology

At Scotgovcamp there was a discussion about how long local government will take to embrace technology. There were several comms people there. "Five years," came the most optimistic answer. By the magic of the internets a comms manager from Hull chipped into the discussion. Isn't technology great? 

by Eddie Coates-Madden

“It’s been too long since you blogged, man”, read the accusatory DM from that @danslee.

Foolishly I replied, ‘Give me a topic’.

Almost as if he’d already thought of it (*suspicious face*) Dan replied, “Some say digital will take five years to be properly embraced in local government. I say that's too late.”

I say that’s too late.

I recently spoke at a ‘summit’ on social media use by government. I said things like:

“We have not been listening to customers."

“We’ve been ignoring private sector best practice, where business understands audiences are made up of individual customers and different groups with different needs,” and

“Social media lets us reach a range of audiences across services, and - with a good ‘web site’ and a range of online customer tools -  is massively important in how we meet customer demands.”

The usual stuff.

It’s almost incidental – but it is Dan’s fault - that the summit was in Dubai, and while I was there I got into a few conversations about the UAE’s new drive to online service. Put simply, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, has announced a new "government vision of the future". Its aim is to provide information to people any time and anywhere.

That he did so on twitter, after meeting a thousand government officials, tells its own story, but it’s a story for another day. Today’s tale is this:

Sheikh Mohammed tweeted "The Government of the future works 24/7 and 365 days a year. It is as hospitable as hotels, fast in delivering and strong in its procedures".

Who doesn’t want that?

While we are asking if the NHS ‘will become paperless by 2018’, his aim is for government to reach people.

"Through their smartphones we can make their lives easier. The Government of the future is innovative and adaptive. It improves the quality of life and helps people achieve their happiness. Today we want to move government information and service centres to every phone and every mobile device in the hands of users, which will allow them to place their government request from their phone wherever they are and without waiting," he said.

Tellingly he has given officials two years to get it sorted. Failure will not be tolerated. Officials have been told that if they fail to deliver mobile services, they will be given a "farewell ceremony".

Two years or fired.

The crisis of finance facing local authorities in the UK, in my view, means that we don’t have the luxury of five years.

We may not have three.

As I was drafting this post, Dominic Campbell appeared in the Guardian (like he does) saying ‘councils will collapse unless they embrace tech’.

That may not be true everywhere, but for those, like mine, which face another 40+ million pounds cut in the next two years, his warning that “most councils can see the next couple of years ahead financially, but there is a gulf appearing after which – if they do not act now with very different thinking – they are going to have to stop services rather than reinvent them”, seems terrifyingly real.

We all know the change is needed. So what holds us back? What? Really?

Our customers are not ours alone. They already use online tools; payment stuff and booking stuff, self service and information gathering stuff in every other sphere of their lives.

We are not asking for the radical any more. We’re asking for what is now ordinary for most customers.

And delivering it won’t stop us providing services to those for whom digital exclusion is an issue. We may need to invest for them, to provide training and assistance. Or we may need to put some of the savings driven by the ‘new model’ into the remnants of the old model to ensure we support the most vulnerable.

But we just don’t seem to be doing it. I have seen first-hand that Dom’s right when he says, “there is a lot of flirting with something which is a good idea but then (they) do not actually go ahead with”.

And this is not the starting line. We're well past that. This isn’t new this week. It’s been there for years. We’ve mostly been not doing digital for years.

I think that giving ourselves another five years is to avoid the issue.

More ‘flirting’.

Parkinson’s Law repeated first as tragedy then as farce.

If we really think we have five years, I’d say that’s because we have not been listening to customers and we’ve been ignoring private sector best practice. Social media, a good ‘web site’ and a range of online customer tools is massively important in how we meet customer demands today.

And that's before anybody even thinks about changes in the technology that will occur in those five years. Are we actually planning to be out of date?

The Sheikh has it. "A successful government is one that goes to the people and does not wait for them to come to it."

Eddie Coates-Madden is communications and marketing manager at Hull City Council. This blog was first posted here.

Picture credit.