Many more services are moving online, but is everyone travelling at the same speed?

Monday, October 12, 2020 - 2:52pm

With the rapid acceleration of digital services during the pandemic it might be worth pausing to reflect up on the African proverb; ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together’

There is no doubt that the pace of digital expansion across the public sector has accelerated drastically as a result of the pandemic. Digital solutions have enabled people and organisations to cope during the pandemic; possibly even to thrive. Organisations have quickly overcome barriers internally and externally to do what would have previously taken months or even years to implement – some almost overnight. Clearly, the injection of resources and a common goal have helped. Across the country, we have seen plenty of examples of digital solutions to help provide services and to improve communication.

‘Kitchen table working’ has almost become the norm. Using platforms like Zoom, Skype and Teams to do things which would have normally happened face-to-face from gold command meetings to manage the response to the virus, to teaching and helping people. The Isle of Anglesey County Council has carried out adoption assessments and meetings with prospective foster carers virtually, for example. It’s accepted now that meetings may be interrupted by children, pets, doorbells; often a welcomed injection of humour to remind us that we are human and not digital at the end of the day. ‘Can you hear me?’ has probably become the most commonly used daily phrase.

Is everyone traveling at the same speed?

Through our work on the Audit Wales Covid Learning Project we have seen a number of examples where public services have worked to make sure they think and act to include as many people as possible. Especially the people who may get left behind as things move online or utilise other digital formats.

But the new normal assumes everyone has the know-how, the wifi, the infrastructure, the devices to benefit from it. There is a clear risk that the expansion of digital transformation and channel shift widens inequalities and exacerbates digital exclusion. It’s been good to see some examples of public sector bodies trying to tackle this, such as Cardiff Council’s AdviceLine [opens in new window], which is open to all Cardiff residents and Council staff who need help with basic digital skills and accessing services. The deepening of inequalities as a result of the pandemic has recently been highlighted by an inquiry by the Senedd's Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee and our forthcoming blog on equalities touches on some of these issues more broadly

Pausing to reflect on the journey so far

Some organisations were already doing some of this anyway, but it’s the breaking down of barriers, sharing of information and improved collaboration to enable these things to actually happen which is so positive. Digital solutions will change and develop, but the fact that public sector organisations can and have swiftly done things differently and together is what now needs to be embraced and built on.

Organisations are now reflecting on what worked and what didn’t. Encouragingly, many organisations want to build on what worked and don’t want to revert to how things were before. They are looking at more sustainable solutions to work and deliver services more effectively and efficiently; including to tackle longer term problems like climate change. Digital transformation is a key strand of emerging recovery plans. You could probably find ‘digital transformation’ mentioned in every public sector organisation’s corporate plan prior to the pandemic, but progress was uneven, now they know they can make it happen.

What next?

  • Maintaining progress on the digital journey looks set to continue. COVID-19 has meant that many organisations have ‘moved fast’ to arrive where there are now. One of the important things to reflect upon for the future is ‘how far can we go?’
  • Although digital has many advantages, it isn't a silver bullet - the efficiency and cost savings of operating digitally is still the transformation and transmutation of human interactions. The fact that they are human interactions means that the digital realm may not be the best way of conducting those interactions.

About the author:

Sam Williams has worked for Audit Wales since 2019 and is part of the Good Practice Exchange Team. This involves working with a wide range of people to identify and share good practice to support improvement in Public Services. Sam has particular interests in digital, data, complexity, improvement and learning.