Are digital technologies changing the way that civil servants and other public officials are able to engage with the public, their organizations, and each other?
Public servants have always been at the forefront of technology. Sound surprising? Well, it shouldn’t. Human civilisation began when we stopped being hunter-gatherers and settled down and built cities.
And cities need a lot of organising! The people who ended up doing the job couldn’t do it and till the fields. So, they had to deliver value some other way. They invented ways to keep track of outputs and inputs and who was getting what and when. I’m talking about writing, accounting, organisational structures, and management. All technologies in their own right. In their day they were as cutting-edge as the latest tablet device or smartphone. They transformed the world. And, they were used, primarily by public servants.
That fact makes the modern debate about the role of the public servant so fascinating. We’re emerging from an era where civil services and public sector organisations all over the world are struggling to cope with a changing world. Over the last 30 years or so, technology has been transforming the world outside of government, and it’s taken the public sector a long time to catch up with its own digitally savvy citizens.
The new Insight Guide from Fujitsu, ‘For the People, By the People: Can digital technology increase public trust in government?’ highlights the intense debate that’s going on at all levels within the public sector right around the world.
Our resentment towards government bureaucracies is immortalised in our fiction. Be it the comedic obfuscations of Sir Humphry in the BBC comedy ‘Yes Minister’ or Franz Kafka’s vivid depictions in ‘The Castle’ you don’t have to look far to see government officials portrayed as figures of ridicule and derision.
But things are very different now. Public servants are increasingly seeing themselves as public enablers. And they’re opening up their ministries and departments to the technology that members of the public like using.
The Insight Guide is focused on the issue of trust. I think that’s exactly right. As a taxpayer in my own country I want to be able to trust that my government, including all its departments – from health to welfare to education, are focused on my needs. I want to be able to interact easily with the services I require. I definitely don’t want the experience that Kafka’s K. had!
Technology is at the heart of that transformation. Interestingly, it’s how the public sector is attempting to increase empathy with the public it serves. Many academics who study the role of the public servant now talk a lot about empathy. A report by the University of Birmingham showed that public servants are increasing ‘engaging with citizens in a way that expresses their shared humanity and pooled expertise.’
Public servants are looking to technology not only to make government more efficient (in a time of austerity that’s vital for all nations) but also to get citizen input into how services are designed, delivered and accessed. Importantly, it’s also enabling them to work with fellow public servants across departments (and silos) to create a more joined-up public sector.
The Insight Guide links that effort – that drive for empathy – as the key driver to increase public trust in government. It’s a stimulating read for anyone involved in 21st century government.