Demand for online public services has soared: it’s time we kept up

2020 will be remembered as the year we all stayed home, forcing us to revaluate how we connect

Grandparents joined Zoom quizzes, children took online lessons and we all had to purchase goods and interact online like never before.

Since March, we’ve all seen greater importance and need for more support and guidance from our local and regional public sector providers – putting more pressure on an already stretched service. Coupled with a growing need for faster, more accessible interactions at home, it comes as no surprise that in our latest research we found that almost half of NI citizens want to use digital technology to interact with public services more frequently following lockdown. Civica’s Word from the Wise campaign also highlighted that those over 70 years old, feel tech is improving public services in NI, more than any other age group – showing they are engaging and willing. We are all now past the tipping point for online public services, and struggling to keep up with this demand. The question now is why?

Public services are ready and able – let’s do more

The pandemic has proved that government can respond in record time to meet citizen needs. At the onset of the pandemic, the Department of Health NI recognised the need to provide trusted and easily accessible advice to the public on the virus. As one of the first dedicated tools of its kind in the UK, we worked with the Department of Health NI to launch the COVID-19 symptom tracker information app, ‘COVIDCareNI’ and highlighted how it can be developed in only 10 days. Swift delivery of critical digital information is therefore possible, but it has become the exception rather than the rule.

While fast deployments of critical services such as this are inspiring, it’s notable that it’s taken a global pandemic for public organisations to understand the importance of acting quickly to design services that meet citizen needs. This should become the norm. We cannot wait for the crisis to deepen before we address this.

Organisations and citizens are demanding to be connected. With the support of partners, the public sector can take a leading role in listening to these demands and equipping everyone with the tools, services and information to access improved digital services throughout Northern Ireland.

Pandemic exposes weaknesses

For our latest report ‘Passing the tipping point for digital: the nudge effect of the pandemic’ we spoke with public sector leaders from across the country to explore how digital services are evolving. They all agreed that procurement challenges remain and discussed how we need a procurement system that encourages collaboration earlier and, vitally, moves quickly.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that situations can evolve almost daily and something relevant one month, might seem unimportant the next. The effects of this will be with us for a long time and we don’t know what the world will look like in the next while. The public sector has no choice but to adapt and rethink how to support the changing landscape. Being agile is crucial to this.

We can achieve this, but only if leadership attitudes shift from a primarily reactive mode to anticipating how to reinvent services through the power of technology. Much of this comes down to collaboration – working together across departments, industries and sectors to allow critical services to be accessed quickly. Collaboration isn’t just procurement or system-led. People have to want and be open to working together. Too often, insight is held in isolation. We need leaders to understand that working together is better than operating alone – both public and private sector encouraging an attitude of information sharing within and outside of organisations.

Organisations across Northern Ireland now have an opportunity to use the public’s increased digital adoption to deliver more efficient digital services. But equally, this isn’t just a problem for the public sector, as all sectors must step up too. This crisis has opened a window of opportunity to better society by transforming service delivery across the region. We must now act on it.

About the Author

Mark Owens is the Managing Director of Northern Ireland at Civica. Civica is one of the UK’s largest software companies, with over 30 years of proven expertise in delivering improved outcomes for public services around the world.