Outside in: how the internet is improving public services

Imagine writing a letter to your city council, to your local police department or to your GP only to be ignored because no one there knows how to open an envelope. For those of us who communicate, interact and learn every day online, our envelopes aren’t being opened. In fact, most of the time the letter hasn’t been received.

Right now academics, giant IT companies and senior government officials are having conversations, debates and carrying out research about how public services can use technology to become more efficient, innovative and data driven. But these are big, long term changes that ignore the immediate, day to day issues that trip up the whole system if they are left ignored: people working in public services are not equipped or able to interact with citizens online.

The Office of National Statistics reported that in 2016, 82% of the adult population in the UK uses the internet every day. I am one of those people and a lot of us have an expectation that we should be able to interact with our public services online in the same ways we can interact with other the other services in our lives- banks, energy suppliers or mobile phone providers for example.

The ability to interact online is important because without it, public services will continue to exclude and effectively ignore huge parts of the public. It’s also important because it helps people gain the skills they need to be 21st century public servants.

At the highest levels in public services, there is a lot of rhetoric about engaging the public, listening to the people and being open and accessible. But behind every senior official making claims about strong public engagement is a team of nervous staff asking, ‘How do we do this?’ Public service staff often lack the skills, understanding and leadership that allow them to join online communities and to begin having meaningful conversations where they are most transparent: online.

For the nervous public servant asking ‘How?’ I have some answers. I help people who work in public services learn how to use the internet to engage with the public. I support people to learn to use various online platforms and tools but the most important part of my work isn’t really about websites or social media, it’s about realising the importance of building relationships and trust.

I am part of a growing community of people outside government who want to help people inside government learn ways to interact with citizens online and to stop excluding from conversations those of us who prefer to interact online. We are civic minded, digitally experienced and we want to see change. We are scientists, academics, artists, technologists and mavericks. Together we filling a leadership vacuum in public services.

I have spent around ten years helping public servants get to grips with using the internet to interact and, as this becomes more normalised, there are three important things that are emerging:

1. Interacting online helps public servants rediscover communities, the issues that concern them and the ideas they have. Through the work I do I see that internet connectivity is powering human connectivity. Since January I have been working with the Democratic Society focusing on helping governments in Scotland do local community engagement online. A couple of months ago we wrapped up an online engagement project in a community just outside of Glasgow. Their project was going to try using online engagement and outreach to promote a regular face to face event that would be held a couple months later. The main aim was to see if going online would mean more people attended the face to face event. The public servants I supported to learn about online engagement and outreach started out with a healthy dose of skepticism and they were on a steep learning curve. What if it didn’t work? What if we say something wrong or get attacked? What if I do it wrong? For those of us who use the internet for just about everything, this sounds basic. Basic social media stuff, basic online networking stuff. But to these guys, it was new and scary, especially in a professional situation. By the end of it, they had the biggest turnout they have ever had at this regular face to face event and not just by people in the immediate community but by people in surrounding communities as well. When we followed up with the team to get their feedback about their experience of going online I heard things like, ‘I met people I didn’t know existed…and I live in this community!’ and ‘I was really nervous at first but continuing to engage online could be the biggest thing we can do for our public engagement work.’ In this case and in many other cases, using online platforms meant discoverability, discovery, visibility of people to each other and that can go some way in building trust.

2. Interacting online helps public servants build empathy and compassion. Last week I spent time with a group of NHS clinicians who have been encouraging patients to share their stories online- good and bad- about the care they received. The Scottish Government is subsidising subscriptions to a not for profit online feedback platform, Care Opinion, so staff can start experiencing open and transparent interactions. There is a small wave of change happening right now in Scotland’s NHS and that is around open dialogue between care staff and patients. The idea is that stories bring people closer together and stories are the things that help keep those in public services grounded, that the risk of getting lost in the mechanics of an institution are lowered if they are connected to those they serve with sharing stories of experiences. From the granular things that have prompted services to make changes like ‘Please don’t park food trolleys outside the rooms of people who are nil by mouth’ to the totally inspiring story from a Care Lead in the Borders whose public discussions about her service and patient ideas to make it better have impacted her so much, she will be integrating engagement through Care Opinion into the creation of a new local health service. The trust and respect that will be fostered and then nurtured by the open acknowledgement of an idea or an experience can’t be underestimated or dismissed.

3. Interacting online helps public servants see the art of the possible. This is a crucial step in the journey to the big, long term changes I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Creating the environment and conditions where people can experience something new is important in their journey to feeling comfortable and confident, learning the skills they need to be the 21st century public servants. By allowing people to touch and feel new things, by letting them take ownership of their online identity and learning the basic tenets of commonly used technologies, we are opening hearts and minds to the possibilities of bigger things. The public sector needs to walk before it can run.

The stories I’ve shared here are small and local and they are important because they small and local. An accumulation of small changes are necessary to the success of big culture and infrastructure changes. The work our community of scientists, artists, academics, technologists and mavericks is vital in ensuring huge parts of our communities, including me and maybe you, don’t continue to be excluded and ignored by the people who make decisions that affect our everyday lives. Find our tribe online if you need support or you want to give support from the *outside in*.