The third sector must play a key role in ‘social digital government’

Written by Neil McEvoy on 24 October 2018 in Opinion

Government needs to make sure it is integrating resources from different places in support of common goals, according to Neil McEvoy of Digital Scotland


A milestone evolution for the trend of digital government will be an expansion of its scope, growing beyond simple transaction automation to a holistically transformational framework for ‘social digital government’.

As the title suggests, by better integrating services from the third sector this will provide real solutions for greatly improving healthcare, and tackling previously intractable, deep social needs like poverty and homelessness.

This corresponds directly with the news the UK government aims to increase the role of digital in civil society.

This was emphasised as part of a broad Civil Society Strategy, acknowledging that, in some instances, organisations such as charities, social enterprises, or commercial companies will be better placed than government to provide solutions to social issues.

Mastering how these are blended into a single service-delivery platform is the essence of Social Digital Government.

Social networks of care
The social part has a double meaning. There is the social dimension of the policy agenda, and then also the fact this will be best achieved through the 'socialisation' of technology.

In the same way many enterprise applications adopted social-media features into their functionality, so government workflow applications can do the same, achieving another essential principle of open government design – literally opening up processes to be an accessible, online collaborative community, rather than locking them within a single application and behind a corporate firewall.

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Typically, open government has always had a technical bias, focusing on the mechanics such as open data or open-source software, but it is this modernisation of the most core building block of enterprise systems, each individual process unit, that will yield the transformation that brings real impact to the citizens they are intended to serve.

Since the very first mainframe, the mental model of IT system design and the business process management it enables has been hard-coded into a mode of always codifying interactions as an entry in a structured database. This forces each interaction to be defined through a form-filling exercise that reduces the human experience to a narrow one-dimensional transaction. 

Current digital government practices simply digitise that same effect.

In contrast, social networks have become so popular because they express the rich content that defines real people, and so applying the principle to process management better 'humanises' the enterprise architecture. Whether it be welfare support or hospital treatment, it is personal communities that provide the actual value of service delivery: Doctors, nurses, family and friends, and even peers – other patients undergoing the same treatment – is the best configuration of resources that achieve the best outcome.

Shifting from transactions to these 'social networks of care' as the base unit of design is a win/win for both public and third sector. Most, if not all social organisations are too small to master IT effectively and struggle to implement technologies like customer and workflow management, and would be far more productive being an integrative part of this broader ecosystem; in turn, governments will deliver better citizen outcomes when they can dynamically assemble the right team mix for each workflow case from across this diverse and skilled resource pool.

Integrated practice units
What's especially powerful about this approach is that it is mirrored and complemented by cutting-edge management science defined by economic guru Michael Porter, author of Competitive Advantage and other keystones of modern business thinking.

In his latest work, the Shared Value Initiative, he describes a framework intended to unite businesses, government, and social organisations towards common goals that span across commercial and social needs. In his TED talk Michael explains that the concept of shared value represents the intersection between social and business needs and, when they are addressed together, maximises the success of both.

The central building block of this approach is what he calls Integrated Practice Units – a formal, organisational version of social networks of care. Again, the goal is to unite multiple resources from across many disciplines and organisations to assemble the best array of experts and others resources to achieve the best result. Achieving the best outcome for citizens at the lowest cost is the essence of the Shared Value Initiative. This may sound obvious, however, the primary flaw of government is that it is intensely 'siloed', rigidly departmental in a way that causes the lack of joined-up working that results in many people slipping through the cracks. These inefficiencies inevitably push up costs, resulting in poorer service outcomes for higher costs.

In his Harvard article Strategies for Fixing Healthcare, Porter describes the practices applied to healthcare and its approach of' “integrative policy making” – a whole-systems approach that identifies interconnecting impacts and causes, and addresses them at a whole system level. He explains that the traditional departmental or single-policy-goal approach only constitute "local optimisations", meaning they might improve the patient throughput for only one section, but not the total journey.

Like the public sector as a whole, Porter highlights that most healthcare delivery is typically organised departmentally, with costs and resources tied to departmental units and decisions made via its management hierarchy, causing these local optimisations. 

He describes situations where management programs may be designed in a piecemeal fashion, emphasising one goal that is too narrow, such as increasing access to care or cost-cutting without appreciation of the impact upon the ability to achieve the desired goals. 

Without a holistic design perspective, these can be interpreted in such a way as to be counterproductive to the overall system goals, and so the value agenda provides a means for regulating this aspect, instead building all activities around a core goal of patient, citizen or customer-centric measures for management.

These challenges and the science are not restricted to healthcare and can be applied to any large, complex enterprise scenario – including all of the public sector, and in Scotland, recent policy initiatives provide the ideal context for its application. 

The recently implemented socio-economic duty obliges government to achieve better social outcomes as a consequence of their procurement. But often this can end up as an additional exercise, tacking on a token project simply to tick a particular box.

Instead, social digital government directly embeds the ability to meet this need into the very DNA and core operating model of the machine of government itself, inherently achieving compliance with this legislation simply as a natural function of their day-to-day activities. This enables progressive governments like the SNP to harness technology to deliver on their vision for a socially transformed digital Scotland.

About the author

Neil McEvoy is the founder of Digital Scotland, a community dedicated to helping Scotland become a world-leading digital nation. He will be writing a series of articles for PublicTechnology. His previous articles have included this in-depth look at what Scotland could learn from the example of other digital governments, and why govtech is a major opportunity for the nation. He tweets as @DigitalscotNews.  ​

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