We published our Digital Engagement in the Public Sector report last week, which looks at the Government’s use of digital channels. 

I’ve been talking to the report’s author Tom Raggett, an independent Government advisor, about the issues uncovered by the report, and where he thinks the Government is using digital effectively… 

What are the main bottlenecks or barriers to better digital engagement?

From our research, the main barriers are organisational: few Departments really get that digital is critical to all of their future work.

Two things are required:

1) Convincing Departmental leadership to embrace digital.

2) Allowing staff to use the channels that citizens are increasingly using (e.g. there are several Departments which cannot view their own Twitter feeds internally).

Has the attitude to digital changed as a result of the new Government?

I don’t believe that the attitude to digital has changed significantly as yet: the focus has very much been on cost savings as a result of the deficit reduction programme.

There is certainly a feeling that every department should have, for example, social media operations, but these are often add-ons, rather than core to a department’s business.

The Coalition has been strong in re-appointing Martha Lane Fox as Digital Champion, in hastening the publication of spending and other information on data.gov.uk (both had been promised by the previous administration).

Is there now more emphasis on embedding digital culture to make cost savings?

Digital is always seen as a source of cost savings: well-run self-service has to be cheaper than any moderated service option (paper, phone, face-to-face). The issue with the digital delivery of services is that the conversations are more difficult to control than traditional formats: just think of the endless email conversations you can sometimes have.

It is important for the civil service to develop a form of active listening that helps them show that they are engaged in conversations with the citizen without ending up having a detailed one-to-one conversation with all of them.

What can Government learn from business in terms of its approach to digital?

The report maps across four broad business applications of digital into the public sector to show that the underlying similarities make cross-sector learning worthwhile.

My main learning point for Government would be ambition: one company we know is looking to train all of its employees in digital communication skills. Not just its sales or customer service employees: all of them.

This will radically change the way the company deals with its customers and how it can gain insight from and about them. We call for a similar change in the public sector, starting with a complete refactoring of policy making for the digital age.

What are the best examples of Government departments using digital to provide better services?

Digital is a wide subject, so the range of examples is also wide. An excellent use of digital assets to educate and inform is the Four Degree Map from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office which helps citizens understand the impact of a four-degree change in temperature across the world in an intuitive interactive manner.

On the service side, the joined up (and invisible to the citizen) use of pre-existing HMRC / VOSA data sets makes renewing car tax a very simple matter. We should expect and demand more of this now the publication of information to data.gov.uk has become routine.

Looking at digital communications, a number of Departments have excellent Ministerial and Permanent Secretary blogs: these help humanise the work that the Departments carry out, and helps civil servants and citizens get a better understanding of policies.

Is there any particular department or body which has really embraced digital?

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has embedded digital at the heart of its activities: their web and social network activities are all handled by a group called “Digital Diplomacy”. The FCO contention is that digital activities should now be an integral part of all foreign policy work, rather than an add-on.

A very different example is the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), which cannot meet the additional demand for its services due to the rise in unemployment. It has to use digital channels to deliver services to meet this demand as they are highly scalable in terms of being able to service a large additional number of citizens with a small incremental investment.

Are there any good examples of crowdsourcing? 

The Government has been trying to embed thinking around the co-design of services and crowd-sourcing for many years, and it is not really there yet. Good examples are hard to come by: work ahead of the London Summit in 2009 helped make this high profile meeting more relevant to citizens; work around the Copenhagen summit in the same year helped bring the student voice to the discussions in a consolidated and effective way.

The first major consultation carried out by the Coalition was the HM Treasury spending challenge, which was broadly criticised for descending into lowest common denominator slurs rather than effective cost saving advice. That said, the Coalition has reported that specific suggestions from the exercise will be seen in the Comprehensive Spending Review.

Is there anything businesses can learn from the public sector?

Absolutely. The scale of activities in the public sector is almost always immense: think of the response to Number 10 petitions, the HM Treasury spending challenge. Few businesses have hundreds of thousands of vocal customers telling them what they think every day.

Government tries to carry out a proportion of its work through behaviour change rather than direct regulation: the lessons from these activities are of direct relevance to businesses wanting to provide goods or services to consumers.