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What social technologies mean for public services

This is a reposting of a piece I wrote for NESTA’s Social by Social report with both my FutureGov and Enabled by Design hats on, launched at the recent Reboot Britain event.

I co-founded Enabled by design with Denise Stephens back in April 2008 following the first Social Innovation Camp with the intention of challenging the one size fits all approach to assistive equipment taken by the state by bringing together a creative and passionate community of Enabled by Designers working together to begin to reimagine beautifully useful people-powered products.

In terms of the report itself:

“Social by Social is a practical guide to using new technologies to create social impact. It makes accessible the tools you need to engage a community, offer services, scale up activities and sustain projects. Whoever you are, it shows you how to take technology and turn it into real world benefits.”

We are in the midst of a significant shift in the way we think about and relate to public services. Led both from inside government by the Prime Minister himself as well as more disruptive social, economic and technological change outside government, traditional delivery models and provider-client relationships are being challenged as never before. Driven in no small part by developments in the web, the speed and scale of change is happening on an unprecedented scale and leading us to question the notion of public services in our new, hyper-networked world.

Change is being driven from the top down, with Gordon Brown recognising the need to involve and empower citizens as the means to deliver truly world-class public services. Central to this agenda are the government’s values of choice, voice, transparency and openness.

But for many the speed and scale of this change is not enough and outside of government change is taking a very different form. Change is emerging from the bottom up, with citizens coming together around shared needs and interests and self-organising to resolve the challenges they face together.

Taking advantage of freely available and easy to use collaborative tools such as blogs, wikis and social networks, communities of interest (whether by geography or common cause) are coming together to take on what may have previously been seen as the role of the government in public service delivery, or otherwise acting to publicly hold the government to account on its service delivering.

Whether in the form of peer-to-peer learning through the School of Everything, community recycling services such as Freecycle, or in local groups such as Haringey Online, new forms of public service institution are emerging on an almost daily basis, all built on free and easy-to-use web tools such as Ning, Drupal or Google groups.

We’re moving from e-gov to we-gov: new ways of creating user-led service design are emerging all the time, enabling public services to engage and involve clients in real and meaningful re-shaping of services. Enabled by the power of the web, public services are beginning to be rebuilt from the bottom up, formed around real rather than perceived need and with people speaking for themselves in their own words and through their own experiences and passions.

Take the case of Enabled by Design – driven by a specific identified need by my young and trendy business partner Denise, who just happens to have MS and needs to lean on the state for some assistive equipment. In response, Denise is creating an entirely new form of public service institution, bringing users of equipment together online to challenge the current model of service provision (take what you’re given) and working together with designers and others to challenge the current status quo, self-organising a community into action to improve the look, feel and usefulness of equipment to meet the needs of expert users.

Organisational boundaries are blurring, public services are becoming more transparent and accountable as information and experiences within government are shared on a wide scale, creating more porous institutions enabled by the real stories of life in those organisations. Traditional hierarchies and structures are being bent and broken by the emergence of a patchwork quilt of e-enabled public services, some within the state but many not.

In this new world, the role of government in the provision of public services is being fundamentally challenged. Increasingly, the state is being seen as a facilitator, cheerleader and champion, rather than commander-in-chief; government as a convenor of interests, just one (albeit important) player in a patchwork quilt of public service delivery. It is increasingly accepted that no government can have all the answers nor be best placed to tackle the issues at hand, and now is the time for the government to be brave and begin to relinquish a degree of control to civil society, supporting it to make best use of its own energies and skills to overcome the challenges it faces.

Going forward, the government needs to learn from and work with these nimble micro public service uninstitutions that are redefining public services as we’ve come to know them. It needs to learn to listen, to work collaboratively, to mimic the behaviours of these successful social communities and work with the people it is there to serve – these small, agile and low-cost networks of passionate, creative and knowledgeable public service users. The web provides limitless possibility in every direction and it is now up to the government to work out how best to shape and support ‘public services 2.0’ – and define its own role within it.

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Very cool. I think it gets to the idea of what the gov’t needs to build vs just enable the community. For example, gov’t doesn’t need to spend millions to create a social network site. GovLoop was built with cheap tools and enables the necessary interactions and is in a sense a micro uninstitution as you stated.

I think there’s a great value in these informal networks to move quickly and support public services 2.0


Thanks Steve glad you enjoyed my thinking.

There’s little doubting that we’re at a key point in the relationship between the government and the people it serves, and social technology provides a cheap, easy and effective means to help rebalance this relationship, redistributing the power and better enabling the government and the people to work together to create public value and deliver public services 2.0.