Best Practices

Digital Transformation of the Social Welfare State


Speaking at the TechUK Smarter State event Simon McKinnon, the DWP Chief Digital Officer, asks the single one question that could entirely transform our social welfare state.

It’s a question that if explored thoroughly to conclusion would result in the most significant impact upon our society since the first formation of the welfare state.

The need for a new paradigm is brutally evident. Universal Credit is currently failing so badly it gives rise to more, not less, food bank poverty. Obviously achieving this goal of solving people’s problems would see an opposite direction of societal impact.

Government as a Platform – From Transactions to Marketplaces

Michael makes the critical point – Although it’s popular to describe this type of work as Digital Transformation the reality is it’s not, it’s still just a function of online form digitization, no more advanced than the first E-Government systems, but with prettier web interfaces. In short it’s just transactional in scope, there’s no transformation of the service model itself.

The Universal Credit system is actually a surprisingly basic application. There is a Journal section for recording your various job hunting activities and alongside some simple notifications about your payments, that’s pretty much it. You have a regular meeting with your “Work Coach”, but all they do is check you are ‘ticking the box’ of seeming busy by filling in these forms, and if you fail to prove this you are sanctioned and thus the food bank spiral begins.

As Michael describes all that is achieved is the administration of benefit payments, via an aggressive form of micromanagement, there is nothing systemically designed in to proactively help people find work and escape poverty.

An analogy to think about to define the transformation required is to consider the traditional CRM systems that sales teams would use to record their contacts and deals. That’s the key point, all they did was record the history of work, they did nothing to help achieve the work itself.

It’s the equivalent of a Sales Manager who inspects the CRM to count how many calls and meetings you’ve booked but who does nothing to help you get more of them. The system is designed around measuring activities, not achieving results.

Fast forward to today and the Sales CRM market has evolved into a huge, rich API-interconnected ecosystem of all kinds of apps that help reps in all aspects of their work, from contacting new prospects through digital contracting to close deals, and a similar evolution is needed for public sector IT, an effect known as ‘Government as a Platform’ (GaaP).

This should be combined with cultivating a marketplace of local service partners, organizations who help with all aspects of social and jobseeking support, who can be commissioned by the Work Coach to drive real results for each claimant. Yes Uber Taxis and Airbnb utilize super slick technologies, but the value itself is provided by the taxi drivers and landlords, and the equivalent effect is needed for social welfare support.

Social Digital Government  – Harnessing Collective Intelligence

How these marketplaces might be populated leads us into a discussion of how the public sector can implement and build communities that harness the power of ‘Collective Intelligence‘.

Currently all claimants are processed through a one size fits all approach but the reality is a diverse spectrum of human needs, from professional self-starters best served by being fast-tracked through entrepreneurial programs, through those who really need deep social care help. Each should be supported into an appropriate ‘pathway’ tailored to those needs.

For example a few years ago when living in London, I bumped into and befriended a young lady who revealed the need to me for “Social Networks of Care”.

She lived alone in a highly distressed state, having been moved secretly to London to escape an abusive partner. He had assaulted her to the point of disability, she now had to walk with a cane and had a speech impediment. Her distress had driven her into alcoholism and so she was aggressively shunned by locals and she lived alone in quite abominable conditions.

It was the saddest of human conditions I’d ever witnessed and I tried to be a friend as much as a passing stranger can be and so it struck me that through technology as simple as something like Facebook, combined with an organized community of other volunteers each contributing a few hours a week, a Social Network of Care could be formed around her to provide a consistent form of compassionate contact in her life. Isolation is the huge challenge that stands between many getting back into society and thus work, with focused social networking the ideal tool to address it.

Designing technology to facilitate these types of scenario forces solution design to work at the human level and avoid the predilection of digital initiatives to get caught up in the software development process and ultimately produce yet another transactional system.

Writing for PublicTechnology I described this transformation through a concept of “Social Digital Government“, a double meaning of socializing technology and also being led by a core process of social innovation. It can be applied to any and all use cases, from job seekers through healthcare – All are best served by forming networks of care around the needs of the person.

Ever since the first advent of the ‘Social Web’, I became fascinated with the idea that not only was it transforming from static information to a collaborative platform, but that this mass collaboration would give rise to a higher order of society, a better, more conscious human collective that functions to achieve goals like ending poverty and homelessness.

MIT published a paper ‘Harnessing Crowds: Mapping the Genome of Collective Intelligence‘ (20-page PDF) that distills the key mechanics of this science, and NESTA published a paper that applies the science to government – Governing with Collective Intelligence.

The CitizenLab compares it to AI and provides a simple introduction through 5 Ways Crowdsourcing Serves Our Governments. Harvard introduces the overall effect through defining Digital Government is the new social network, describing how pioneers like New York and Chicago are calling upon the tech sector to “help them build a platform more akin to Facebook than 311 as we know it.”

Wiki Government

In 2009 Beth Noveck described this effect as ‘Wiki Government‘, referring to how the massive knowledge base of Wikipedia was achieved via this approach and how it might be applied to public sector scenarios.

In this video Beth describes how she pioneered Open Government practices at the White House, to transform the 19th century centralized bureaucracies of Government to 21st century networked ‘intelligent crowds’.

Beth pioneered the Peer to Patent portal, which applies the effect to the USPTO’s patent application process, a workflow that requires important decisions on a huge variety of scientific and technical topics, that must reference a history of equally academic prior decisions. It illustrates how Open Government is not just about more open reporting for people to passively look at, it’s actually about re-engineering the process itself, to deliver considerable efficiency improvements and critically, enable more open public participation.

The project is documented via a detailed case study in this 40 page Harvard white paper. Beth describes how the agency was building up a huge backlog of patent applications due to a ‘closed’ approach where only staff from the USPTO could review, contribute and decide upon applications.

Not only did this cause a bottleneck due to the number of resources being utilized but also in terms of the volume and quality of subject matter expertise being applied. With no involvement from outside contributors, such as experts from the scientific community, then awards were being granted for applications based on very limited and often inaccurate knowledge.

Peer to Patent transformed this to a ‘crowd’ model, opening up the workflow to a distributed community of experts from across many different organisations, and apply collective efforts to greatly increase both quality and speed.

This same model can be applied to any scenario to achieve the same outcomes, and when applied wholesale to the social welfare state will serve to build an entirely new social safety net, eliminate poverty and radically transform our economies.

Neil McEvoy

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