Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Participants or customers - the people and public services


I was prompted to thing about these two different relationships by the publication of the "Smart Cites Health and Wellbeing Discussion Draft" by some folk called the "Smart Cities - Health and Wellbeing, Leeds Task and Finish Group" who are, it seems part of the wider "Smart Cities Forum". First lets get the biggest problem out of the way.

We recommend that we rapidly explore and then build city scale facilitated networks, focused equally on well-being and health, the terms of reference for the networks being clearly established to identify and deliver the benefits of smart technology – for all parts of our community applying the concept of Solution Shops & Value added Services, within the boundaries of new institutional thinking which aligns interest. 

Now forgive me if I'm being a bit thick but this recommendation is simply gibberish. I mean what is a "city scale facilitated network" and, more to the point, what on God's earth are "Solution Shops". Now I'm sure the folk who wrote the report - and the names of the guilty are listed (including not just one but two 'Smart Cities Policy Leads' from the Department of Business, Industry and Science - and they say there's no scope for savings) - meant well in writing their jargon-ridden, barely-comprehensible 'summary' but they have revealed again that public service design is an echo chamber that completely fails in the aim of getting the wider public involved in the 'co-production' of those services.

During the subsequent interaction on Twitter, one participant provided a link to the 'Our Cities Network' and pointed out that in Rio de Janerio over 150,000 people are involved in this network. Which is fine until you appreciate that the population of greater Rio is over 13 million (and within the old city limits, some 6 million) meaning that this brilliant participation only engages between 0.1% and 0.2% of the populace.  Nearly everyone in Rio isn't part of the network, aren't part of the in-crowd who:

...(put) pressure on decision-makers, contribute their ideas and share their talents in order to build cities that are more inclusive, sustainable, creative, collective and that are always becoming better places to live.

The assumption here - and it is a common one - is that greater levels of 'participation' result in better policy-making. Those defending the 'Our Cities Network' will, I don't doubt, observe that the 0.1% participation is better than the 0.01% participation before the initiative. But is it? I'm making a guess here but probably a safe one - the members of the 'Our Cities Network' are better educated, older, wealthier and more likely to work in public service, academia or the 'creative industries' (plus those who make a living from selling things to the other members of the network). The demographic profile of those participating is completely different from that of the City as a whole. So the process of participation becomes, rather than 'co-production', an extension of the existing echo-chamber around public policy. We get policies that these middle-class people want themselves or think that poor people (who aren't in the network) might want.

The second aspect of participation is around the exploiting of data - the Smart Cities work stands and falls on the government permitting this:

We recommend the government considers changes to data legislation to enable appropriate data sharing and linkage between different government departments, health and social care bodies and statutory agencies based on more proactive and explicit consent models.

This is a long way from government acting through consent and with the willing participation of the public it serves. More to the point is raises some more questions about the use of 'Big Data' in designing public interventions. Now this isn't just about Vince-Wayne Mitchell's research into horoscopes but also reflects the fact that, just as the participation in Rio seems good but isn't, the data is not structured - there's just a lot of it. By way of illustration we have Boston's 'Street Bump' app which used a smart phone app to identify damage to road surfaces in the city - loads and loads of data all to be crunched thereby allowing the City Council to respond better. What could go wrong?

“Why?” Jake asked the audience gathered in BAM’s Harvey Theater. Why were there more potholes in rich areas? A few answers came from the crowd. Someone suggested different traffic patterns. Then the right answer came: wealthy people were far more likely to own smart phones and to use the Street Bump app. Where they drove, potholes were found; where they didn’t travel, potholes went unnoted.

Just because you have lots of data doesn't mean you have better information, it just means you have lots of data. The health and social care system generates lots of data. But it's data about old people and ill people and most of us aren't old or ill right now. Just as the liver doctor thinks liver disease is a massive problem because that's all he sees, the use of Big Data in health runs the risks of policy-decisions about all-population health or wellbeing issues being determined by analysing only the part of the population who are ill or old (or, indeed, ill and old).

So the use of modern technology to create 'facilitated networks' and manipulate 'Big Data' doesn't actually extend participation even if the process is designed (as with the Our Cities Network) with the specific aim of securing participation. To use a local, mundane example in Bradford - for the current consultation on budget options I was told officers were 'pleased' that 30 people had turned out to a public meeting in Bingley. It's not that I think these processes are without value but they are the city level equivalent of a focus group and should be treated as such. The problem is that people 'participating' are led to believe that their 'engagement' means they can influence the policy-decisions being considered. No focus group participant knows anything other than they get £20 of M&S vouchers in exchange for an hour or so chatting with a dozen others about something.

The real point here is that the population are not participants in public service delivery let alone 'co-producers' - they are customers and see little difference between the behaviour of the council or government department and any of the many large private businesses they buy from. We pay our local taxes and we get our bins emptied, the litter picked up and the potholes fixed. We pay taxes and receive education for our children and a health service when we're ill. We do not consider ourselves participants in the provision or delivery of these services - we are customers of those services.

If you want people to participate in creating, designing and delivering public services then you have firstly to do so at the scale of their understanding (this isn't to dismiss them but to observe that they aren't usually interested beyond securing what they need or want - and who's to argue with that). This means working as close to the individual level as you can.

Secondly people have to be in charge. Not in the 'empowering communities' manner but really in charge. The problem is that most people don't want to be 'in charge' of bins or schools or doctors any more than they want to be 'in charge' of the supermarket, the electricity board or the train company. What we want is for those services to work for us, to allow us to have what we need (and most of what we want) without us having to fuss and bother about it. And most of the time public services do just that and we are happy to carry on being a customer.

If we want to fuss about how to use smart technologies to get people better services that's great. But it isn't about getting more participation, it's about customer service, developing and extending the services we provide and behaving a lot more like Waitrose and a lot less like old-fashioned public agencies.  This means changing how we speak - dropping the management babble and academic over-elaboration, using short sentences, words with fewer syllables and phrases that folk might have a fighting chance of understanding. Imagine if the John Lewis Christmas ad was written by public sector professionals!

And we need to start treating the public as consumers - asking them (with real research using proper samples and good design not a self-selected audience in a draughty community centre) what they want and what it should look like. Rather than trying to pretend we can create some sort of on-line agora - bear in mind the demos of ancient Athens was only about 30,000 at most - we should build a relationship with the audiences we serve using the communications techniques that successful big consumer-focused businesses use.

In the end most people, in the manner of Ms Garbo, just want to be left alone. They have no interest in being 'consulted', in 'empowerment' or in 'participation'. What they want - and what we should try to give them - is high quality services that meet their needs and go some way to satisfying their wants. Emptying someone's rubbish bin or treating their bad back isn't a question of ideology but one of efficiency and effectiveness. Instead what government fusses about is variously saving the planet, reordering society, scaring the socks off people and coming up with new and innovative ways to waste the money people hand over in taxes. Instead of trying to get people participating when they really don't want to participate, we should should be doing the much simpler task of asking - through good research - what people want and setting about giving them just that.


No comments: