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Preventing harm: why public sector leaders and software firms both need to think again

Saturday 7 April 2018 Data Insight & Analytics


Marc Radley's picture
By Marc Radley
There’s a moment every public sector leader remembers. You’ve spent a whole career doing your best for the people in your community – building on your successes and being open to challenges and continuous improvement – until eventually you’re promoted to the top table. 
And suddenly, everything changes.
Now you feel like you must fight to defend resources and keep on board all the excellent, committed colleagues you work with. You must secure your piece of an ever-shrinking pie.
That’s absolutely natural, not least with austerity biting down hard. Even if you suspect that achieving collaboration with other agencies – or finding different ways to intervene earlier – could save resources and optimise results and outcomes all round, who can secure the thinking time and budget for that kind of speculation? You are working hard right now – meeting targets and ensuring you don’t let too many important things slip or let anybody down.
I know about this, because I’m a former children’s social worker. And I now work in the software supplier sector and recognise something else, too: technology companies aren’t doing enough to help with this.

“The same, but better” can only go so far

An apocryphal quote is often attributed to Henry Ford: “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”
By and large, public sector services and software companies work the same way: taking today’s workload and trying to do it more efficiently. In the long term that approach is unsustainable.
For a technology company, it can seem the easiest way to compete is on functionality: simply tick more boxes than the others, with less regard to whether adoption and implementation makes a real difference to the way services and people can do things in the real world. The result? The status quo is not challenged enough; patterns are also reinforced including contract inflexibility and overall costs.
As the Munro Review of Child Protection puts it, the software “can unintentionally influence and limit local practice” – and that’s as true today as it was in 2011. 
But what if senior decision-makers in the public sector – and the technology vendors that support them – could step back and see themselves less as managers and more like designers? What if they worked on finding the best ways of rethinking organisational relationships, people, practice, information management and work? Then we can find new opportunities to really make a long term difference. 

Social-technical systems design

We need to think less about the technology and more about human learning and use of tools to create benefits. We need to think of the ways we can enable and augment continuous improvement of behaviour and generate new thinking. It’s the kind of thing that happens in organisations that innovate.
For example, when my colleagues in CACI’s digital marketing team worked with Harvester on a new booking system, they didn’t just try to make the existing reservation process more efficient. They used it as a starting point to expand the whole restaurant experience. No more hoping you get a good table, now you can choose. And not just your table; your menu, your seating plan and even your place mats could have personalised messaging.
And when they rebuilt Chelsea FC’s website, they tailored the experience based on what Chelsea FC staff could learn about each individual user – their location, their specific levels of interest, their user journey – enabled right down to the interaction on the devices they’re using at the time.
That takes data, but it also involves a focus on better understanding human needs. The difference is the potential in the public sector to integrate very rich and deep, professional knowledge about the lives and challenges of local people with data and information systems to optimise how services can make a difference.

It’s time to connect the dots

If new systems can help public services overcome their silos and work in a truly collaborative, joined-up way, the potential gains are huge.
Currently, Class A substance abuse in the West Midlands alone is estimated to cost public budgets £1.4 billion every year – quite aside from the broader toll on society. For many of those now involved in organised crime or addicted to drugs, there will have been warning signs and opportunities to intervene far earlier: perhaps hidden in patterns of school attendance and behaviour. Or perhaps traumatic experiences in childhood recorded in youth justice case management systems and other specialist areas within multi-agency services.
There’s plenty of research on the contributing factors to crime. And there’s plenty of practitioners who are skilled in engaging and making a difference when problematic behaviours are emerging, without stigmatising the individual or escalating the situation. There’s also great potential for emerging technology to help.
For example, neuroscientists have shown that childhood head trauma and neglect can both delay maturity and a young person’s capacity to regulate their emotional landscape. This limits their ability to interact and respond appropriately to perceived stress, for example, in a learning environment or in some social interactions or where things appear to be unpredictable. 
Already, Achievement For All’s “The Bubble” is helping to upskill teachers in the area of understanding and managing speech language and communication as well as other neurodiversity. Also, CACI’s ChildView Youth Justice case management system can capture and aggregate data on the nature of late diagnosis of these issue as well as provide support for screening at earlier points of contact.
We can work towards using tools and data, to collectively design new ways to ensure that the right engagement is targeted and takes place. Perhaps, in future, schools could self-identify what specific learning support issues they can address through an admissions portal, attracting future additional funding similar to the pupil premium. We should also be able to design and distribute Fitbit-like technology to specifically assist some young people in formulating and tracking their goals, time and concentration levels. Children who can build timely resilience to cope with school family and life challenges are better self-protected and less likely to be attracted to risky behaviours or enter the criminal justice, addiction or mental health systems later.

Systems modelling can unlock change

Deeper Youth Justice practice data can indicate missed opportunities to intervene and make a difference in a young person’s life as much as ten years before they enter the youth justice system. It’s a question of taking a narrative view - bringing together practitioner knowledge, data from multiple sources and a stronger focus on the few individuals with hidden needs and designing new types of support and self-help in and around universal services such as schools.
This illustrates perfectly why public services so often react individually, erecting barriers in moments of crisis rather than co-operating to prevent problems. When resources are so desperately scarce, why would anybody readily divert them into saving work for another department, ten years later?
This is where systems thinking can help. The more accurately we can model the flow of demand for services across the whole system and see more of the complex service interactions, the better we can use prediction to dynamically design policy and commissioning for a sequence of targeted interventions to have a total longer term impact.
That’s important because it means stakeholders from different agencies and services can come together, use data, and test the outcomes of various assumptions and models of service delivery. It’s entirely possible to predict how crime and health budgets will be affected tomorrow, by the way social care and schools work today. The next step is to use data that represents demand in real time, using flexible joins between information systems to keep track of service investments and the impact on meeting needs in a local context.
That’s an opportunity for collaboration. Combined with committed practitioners and imaginative joint commissioning at the regional level, it gives our services the chance to move away from salami slicing, towards more profound and ongoing change. And it gives our public sector leaders a chance to get back to what they love most: making a real difference to our communities.

Find out more about how IMPULSE, our modular database application for Education Service teams and ChildView Youth Justice, our market leading specialist youth justice case management software, could help your team.

Under the squeeze of austerity, public sector leaders can be tempted to just fight their corner. They need to think again about what is actually the best route to better outcomes for their communities - and so do the software firms that provide the tools they use. Marc Radley elaborates in his latest blog about the public sector & technology.

Preventing harm: why public sector leaders and software firms both need to think again


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