Mobile Government – Transforming Public Service Delivery

The benefits, opportunities and lessons learnt in mobilising the public sector were clearly in evidence at this year’s Mobile Government event. In ensuring success, enthusiasm certainly helps – but careful planning is absolutely vital. This article presents the highlights from Gov Net’s annual Mobile Government 2006 conference.

GovNet’s second annual Mobile Government conference – Mobile Government: Transforming Public Service Delivery – echoed the same enthusiastic outlook for delivering mobile government solutions as last year’s event. However, some of the speakers who had been there last year also reinforced the cautionary message that careful planning was needed on the government side, not just enthusiasm for technology.

Following the format of last year, the speakers demonstrated the benefits, opportunities and lessons learnt in mobilising the public sector workforce, both in delivering services to the public and in introducing flexible working to public sector organisation.

The plenary sessions came from representatives of local and central government authorities, academia, and mobile service providers such as Vodafone and BT. Presentations featured case-studies and practical examples of public sector organisations that are benefiting from mobile solutions today.

Pragmatic innovation

Chris Haynes, a Senior Policy Advisor from the ODPM, opened the conference with a keynote speech that focused on how organisations should develop their strategy for mobile government. He started by quoted the ‘Cutting the Wire’ report from the New Local Government Network think tank. In this Jim Fitzpatrick, the Parliamentary undersecretary, states “Mobile communication technologies are a key catalyst for transformational change.” This statement outlines the endorsement of mobile government strategy from the heart of central government.

In his speech Chris outlines how the building blocks of an organisation’s mobile strategy have to come from asking fundamental questions about mobile working and how it will impact working practices, for example ‘What are your key drivers?’ and ‘Are you prepared for the organisational effects?’.

From the answers three separate strategies need to be developed: an infrastructure strategy, a user/customer strategy and organisational change strategy. This talk emphasised the need for pragmatic planning on the side of government organisations and that technology is not the focus of planning, but the end user, be it worker or consumer.

Over-emphasis on technology

This pragmatic approach was touched on by Joe Creese, Head of IT Hampshire County Council and Chair of the Socitm Insight. He followed up on his presentation on mobile working last year with the warning that there was currently too much focus on technology, the ‘sexy side’, and not enough emphasis on people and working practices.

He also pointed out that there were ‘hidden’ costs of mobile working, such as extra support. New working practices needed to be developed to help the workers and the management to adapt to this new style of working and make it effective.

Flexible working

Rachel Luck from University of Reading presented the results from her research into flexible working in the public sector and its effect on use of workspace, people and ICT. This found that there an increase across the board in flexible working practices from 2003, from part time working to working from flexible offices. Interestingly, the benefits of flexible working were seen in terms of customer service and staff efficiency and satisfaction, but the negative impact was the costs of communication and support.

Digital pens

One of the most interesting presentations was from Doug Sutherland of Leeds City Council on how the council had introduced ‘Digital pens’ for its care staff. These pens write on ‘intelligent’ paper that records the pen strokes as vector information related to specific forms that have been set up for it. The pen then sends the information via Bluetooth to a mobile, which then send it by GPRS to the server.

Introduction of digital pens had led to a greatly streamlined process. Previously staff had filled out forms by hand and then – once back in the office typing them up by hand. Now, details were recorded more accurately and staff were freed up to spend more time with clients. It was calculated that the costs of implementing this system would be recouped and a further £1.6m saved over three years.

RFID

Matthew Wade, from the DTI, discussed how Radio Frequency identification (RFID), is being used by organisations to increase efficiency in workflows from the tagging logistics for the defence sector to patient records for the NHS. In a convincing demonstration, he showed how much was lost by the NHS as a result of ‘mistakes’ due to staff having incorrect or incomplete records for patients.

To reduce these mistakes and improve efficiency patients in Birmingham Heartlands were give e-records with photo identification, with wrist bands using RFID. This means that when staff accessed the e-record prior to surgery they had the most up-to-date information on the patient and any changes needed were updated on all records immediately.

Medical appointments

Professor Istvan Tozsa brought an international perspective to this year’s conference with a detailed case study of how a pilot study used mobile messaging to allow people to interact with their local health clinic and book appointments and request medical certificates. In Hungry the internet access is only at 24% of the population, while mobile penetration is at 94%. As well explaining in detail who the scenarios worked, Professor Tozsa also touched on how users were made aware of this service.

E-democracy

The most interesting part of the day for me came in the seminar on ‘Reaching your public- E-Democracy and SMS’. Ben Marsh from iMeta discussed the potential of the mobile channel as a channel of interaction between the citizen and the government.

Like Professor Tozsa he cited the high penetration of mobile technology into society as key to the potential of this. As he pointed out, people schedule in time to email, but their mobile phone is with them all the time and is a much more accessible medium. Examples he cited included his own involvement in the Southampton City Council SMS voting system for youth parliamentary elections, Fife Council texting tenants about rent arrears and East Riding Council ‘text a benefit fraud’ scheme.

All pointed towards an encouraging uptake in response and involvement from the target audience. This issue then inspired lively debate amongst the audience about whether the mobile channel can overcome apathy and encourage engagement.

Conclusion

Overall the event built on the success of last year and was engaging and informative. The presentations showed how mobile solutions can benefit the working practices of public sector employees and provide an effective delivery channel for customers. They also showed how prudent planning plays a key role in ensuring efficient and smooth delivery.

The cautionary note sounding throughout the day was that there needs to be a clear awareness of the impact of mobile working solutions on an organisation and a user/customer centric approach is crucial to success. Technology is the tool, not the solution for mobile working.

Many of these messages are similar to those echoed last year and the reinforcement of a pragmatic approach to mobile working is essential for it to achieve its potential for central and local government.

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This article was written by Chris Rourke. Chris is a User Experience Consultant at User Vision, a usability and accessibility consultancy that helps clients gain a competitive advantage through improved ease of use.

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