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The pandemic has been a powerful accelerant for digital innovation: As Liam Maxwell said, “you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube”. Mark Thompson reflects on Public Sector Innovation Conference 

By Mark Thompson3 March 20215 min read

On Tuesday, I had the pleasure of chairing the Digital Leaders 3rd Public Sector Innovation Conference.  It was [obviously] a virtual conference – the first virtual conference I’ve chaired – and something I really enjoyed was the vibrant chat panel, which allowed a broader set of views to be aired in real time, something that we’d never really properly achieved in the physical world using phone-based apps.  Appropriately enough, the conference was themed into ‘Supporting Covid Recovery’, ‘Improving Health & Wellbeing’, and ‘Tackling Economic Inequality’ – but rather than provide a summary of content in each of these parts (this is available here), I thought I’d draw some cross-cutting reflections on a few elements that gave me particular pause for thought.  So here’s what I learned about data, about collective action, and about social value.


What I learned about data

Much of what I learned about data happened in a panel with Jeni Tennison, Iggy O’Doherty, and Simon Swift, as well as a ‘fireside chat’ between Seth Finnegan and Anne Marie Cunningham.  These conversations quickly established two broad areas of innovation opportunity for government: the first (and more generally discussed) is democratising use of data by broad multi-actor ecosystems to improve front-line public services. Jeni outlined three types of governance issue here: the ‘open data’ itself, researcher access, and ‘portability’ (citizen access) that need to work across the broad, distributed ecosystem of actors and interests. It quickly emerged that there are two types of innovation ‘play’ here: centrally-curated, ‘register’-style, canonical datasets along ‘data-as-a-platform’ lines, as opposed to evolving, locally-collected, more real-time datasets and associated innovation.  So lots of models, lots of roles, lots of potential pitfalls, and associated risk: it was agreed that we need a culture of innovation around data that legitimises some risk-taking: a great idea to help people navigate some of these nuances was the ODI’s Data Ethics Canvas, which seems to me to be exactly the sort of easy-to-use heuristic that people need.

The second broad area for data innovation the panel discussed is the more back-office machine learning/automation opportunity – running industrial-grade AI over the myriad administrative silos in government to strip out process, streamline/improve citizen interactions with the state, and divert precious public funds away from wheel reinvention to the front line where they have more value (we also discussed the future potential of AI running over unstructured data, but I sensed that we’re not really ‘there’ yet).  An interesting observation that emerged during a conversation between Colm Hayden and Dan West which resonated with my own experience (and behaviour!) was that citizens have a slightly ‘schizophrenic’ approach to personal data: we expect our public services to be joined up and efficient, armed with the right data when we need them, however we’re quick to invoke our data privacy rights when it comes to actually enabling this to happen.


What I learned about collective action

Our first keynote, Lord Adebowale, was inspiring on what he sees as the need to drive out social value from innovations at the local level via place-based commissioning and budgeting, with the spend going to mutuals and social enterprises wherever possible, who would be best placed to ensure delivery of a triad of financial efficiency, environmental impact, and social value – an argument that I’d say has started to be recognised with Track & Trace, where local health teams have proven multiples more efficient than national call centres and online services.  For Lord Adebowale, centrist approaches to tackling poverty too often suffer from groupthink, which can act as a barrier to social innovation best triggered and addressed locally.

However, locally generative innovation for place-centred social value isn’t so easily achieved: Lord Adebowale pointed to a really interesting tension between the need to tackle issues locally, but not to fragment and duplicate effort at the same time.  Reflecting on several discussions during the day, I have the sense that the ‘solution’ to this lies to some extent in our ability to develop a decentralised, ‘micro-services’ approach to collective action in which local actors coalesce around shared digital and data assets: in other words, that social organisation for the ‘digital’ era is no longer a ‘boom or bust’ choice between central or local, but about the state’s careful curation of a lively, multi-sector ecosystem, albeit one that is held to account locally, not centrally.


What I learned about social value

There are, of course, some public services that are different: those – such as DWP – that are a bit like utilities, in that citizens lack a (real) choice and for whom there is an additional ‘answerability’ to do proper user research and ensure access for everybody (DWP is not a ‘digital-first’ organisation in consequence).  In a fascinating conversation, DWP’s Cheryl Stephens and Nigel Watson (who actually works for a utility) discussed the extent of digital and data inequality, underscoring the sense that ‘social value’ doesn’t get very far without a systemic, joined-up approach to connectivity, device access, skills, and motivation – a point echoed in a panel comprising Milly Zimeta, Sean Fielding, Jane Morrison-Ross, and Liz Williams, who called for a commitment to ‘do digital differently’ (systemically) post-pandemic.  I took away from these conversations that social value is nothing if not systemic and joined-up – something that Sean Fielding amply demonstrated in relation to what has been achieved in Manchester; it’s not about individual gestures.

Finally, reflecting this systemic emphasis, I think there’s also a more difficult conversation to be had around who gets to provide ‘social value’: whether this is just public sector (a slightly dated view perhaps) or a multi-agency collaboration.  In the second keynote, Liam Maxwell pointed to several interesting example of how AWS had delivered speed, scale, security, and innovation that this company was probably more ideally placed to provide than the state.  A similar acknowledgement that we need to find a balance between consumption of common platforms, data assets, and digital capabilities whilst configuring ‘front end’ digital services closely around user needs was echoed by Rox Heaton, Jenny Sime, Sally Meecham, Tom Taylor, Paul Maltby, and Alison McKenzie-Folan. It seems to me that determining where it is most ‘socially valuable’ to deploy public funds will in the future involve negotiating a more complex landscape of public, private, and third sector actors, and understanding the unique value that can be brought to bear by each.


All in all, we had an excellent day, and I learned a lot, even if I was left with more questions than answers (which is a sign of a good conference).  Across the day, however, was a common acknowledgement that the pandemic had been a powerful accelerant for digital innovation and transition to digital- and data-enabled service delivery models: as Liam Maxwell put it,


“you can’t put the toothpaste back into the tube”.


It seems that Doing Digital Differently post-pandemic will be a fascinating place to work.