How does digital thinking relate to the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act?

The Wellbeing of Future Generations Act calls for a massive step-change in how organisations plan and deliver public services in Wales, whilst technology has fundamentally changed the social environment in which we work. How can the Act can support strategic digital thinking in public services?

The Wellbeing of Future Generations Act is a bold piece of legislation that demands that Welsh public services work in a very different way to how we’ve worked in the past. The Act has been a theme of the Good Practice Exchange’s work over the past couple of years (ranging from public provision of parks to internal audit), and it continues to be for our seminar on Redesigning public services: The strategic importance of digital.

I’ve been interested in what digital thinking means for public services since running Participation Cymru’s e-participation courses in my previous job, as it looked at how technology can help to ensure the public have a voice to ensure that resources are targeted effectively.

At this point, I should be clear about what I mean by digital thinking, which is a blogpost in and of itself. Fortunately, Stephen Foreshew-Cain has done just that in this great post, which includes this tweet from Tom Loosemore:

Carl Haggerty (who is running a workshop at the event with Cllr Barry Parsons on involving elected members in a digital approach) has also written a fantastic blogpost where he looks at leadership and moving away from “automating legacy processes rooted in old ways of doing things”.

So just like for the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, digital service delivery requires a very different mindset to the one that has traditionally been at the root of public services. In the past, many organisations have applied a patriarchal mindset to their work — a sense that as deliverers “we know best” and that the public are grateful recipients. I listened to heartbreaking stories from the Citizens Panel for Social Services in Wales that emphasised how this approach can mean that public services fail to provide the support that people want.

User need

It’s the focus on “user need” that really made me interested in digital delivery. I’ll be honest, I’m not much a fan of the term, but I am a fan of the improved services that the mindset has provided. If you’ve renewed your car tax with the DVLA, you’ll know how a difficult, cumbersome and timely process has been replaced with a streamlined service that meets the need of the person accessing it.

The deficit based terminology still troubles me though. It reduces people, staff and communities who are key to delivering effective services as “users”, and “need” suggests that public services are still the ones with the power and are graciously sharing it. Public services are increasingly relying on people and communities to deliver aspects of services, which shows that we need to consider how this model fits with an asset based approach that focuses on what people can do. It’s worth checking out this video of Cormac Russell explaining the Asset Based Community Development Approach and thinking about how aspects of it might be applied.

There are examples of where public services are thinking about how they adapt to this role. At LocalGovCamp I heard about how Devon County Council are questioning what local government is for, and I also had a fantastic Unmentoring conversation with Kelly Doonan on their enabling mindset for public service improvement.

So what does the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act have to do with any of this?

There are some great resources out there on digital thinking and public service delivery, including the UK Government Digital Service Design Principles. As we’ve been scoping and planning our digital event, it’s struck me how important it is to emphasise that Digital and the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act are not competing priorities, they actually work really well together. Here’s how the Act’s five ways of working mesh with digital thinking:

  • Integration and collaboration
    How can digital help services to work together? Do we all need to be using wildly different systems? Can we build on the GDS Principle of working openly?
  • Long term and preventative approaches
    This fits with the GDS principle of doing less — “If we’ve found a way of doing something that works, we should make it reusable and shareable instead of reinventing the wheel every time. This means building platforms and registers others can build upon, providing resources (like APIs) that others can use, and linking to the work of others. We should concentrate on the irreducible core”
  • Involvement
    The focus on user need that I’ve mentioned in this post — can services be person centred if they don’t involve people?

All of this means that we need to move beyond current models of thinking to consider the opportunities that both digital and the Act allow, and we’re hoping that this event can help attendees to do that. We’d love to have your input either directly at the event or through #WAOdigital. Because by pooling our learning and sharing our approaches to digital, we can really get to grips with how we provide services that are fit for purpose in the twenty first century.

This post orginally appeared on the blog of the Good Practice Exchange at the Wales Audit Office.