Andy Start, Executive Officer of Government Services, and Aimie Chapple, Executive Officer of Customer Management, discuss Covid-19’s impact on how the public sector delivers services, looking at what we’ve learned and how we can build on it for the future.
Andy: The Covid-19 pandemic has forced all sectors to rapidly adapt to new ways of working – including the public one. The scale and speed at which remote working has become the new normal would have previously been unimaginable. What have been some of the major shifts that you’ve seen in customer and citizen management?
Aimie: The pandemic has certainly forced people to think differently and to accept that there are some things that we do just because we’ve always done them, and that there are some better ways of doing things that historically we’ve been slow to take up simply because they’re ‘not how we do things round here’.
The biggest shift within customer and citizen management – remote working – is a great example of that. Historically, home working for advisors was rare and limited in its scope; and then, in the space of a few short weeks, there was a wholesale shift to thousands of agents providing people with incredibly high standards of crucial support from home.
I think remote working is going to stay for the medium term, and probably even the long term, because of the benefits that organisations and their employees have enjoyed. For example, there are significant cost savings to be made – it’s 20% cheaper to have advisors based at home – and lower rates of attrition, sickness and unauthorised absence.
Organisations need fewer buildings, and employees are saving on commuting costs and generally enjoying a better work-life balance.
Another shift that I think is significant, this time in procurement, is the breakneck speed at which organisations have had to respond to requests for equipment – they’ve had to adopt a ‘retail’ attitude and buy quickly and pragmatically.
Of course, understanding the impact of how the public sector is changing on customers and citizens is paramount – especially when the pandemic is affecting many people’s financial wellbeing – but it needs to continue to think differently and adopt new ways of working. Compassionate organisations that respond in the right way to the pandemic will be more productive and earn people’s trust.
Andy: Historically, the private sector has arguably led the way in technological advancement. The public sector has, rightly, tended to wait for technology to be proven to ensure they’re making the right decisions. During this period or disruption both sectors are being pushed to innovate faster. Do you think some of the changes been more difficult for public sector clients to adapt to than they have for clients in the private sector?
Aimie: There’s much more red tape in the public sector than in the private – government by its very nature must be more methodical and accountable than businesses, and less pragmatic, and it must work for everyone living in the UK, not just a specific group of customers.
However, both sectors face the same struggles of getting services to citizens in different ways and both have had to adapt at an extraordinary pace which could prompt a change in attitudes towards the place of innovation in the future.
Andy: I believe that we have seen how applying those approaches to public sector problems, gives a real opportunity to reduce costs to the State and to improve customer experience. What developments / innovations are you seeing within the private sector that the public sector can learn from?
Aimie: Even though the public sector has to contend with more red tape and slower processes than the private sector does, parts of it have innovated and have undergone successful digital transformation. The full digitisation of the driving licence and passport application process are a case in point – they show how it’s possible to digitise previously manual systems.
The private sector has been much more dynamic than the public sector in the way it’s used data and analytics to predict events and automated its processes. It’s also been more pragmatic about adopting artificial intelligence. This is probably in large part due to the fact that the public sector is more constrained by the need to work with every segment of the community and the various stringent rules and processes that it has to follow to achieve that.
As digital transformation continues throughout the public sector, there is certainly still more that could be learned from the private sector about how to automate processes in a deeper and more meaningful way.
Andy: What would you say are the specific challenges for our Government clients in citizen management?
Aimie: Our experience of working with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) during this difficult time has demonstrated how a pragmatic approach can help the public sector to be more responsive and agile. Faced with an unprecedented surge citizen demand for Universal Credit, we helped by delivering a home working solution including remote workforce technology, onboarding and agent training within 4 weeks. In normal circumstances, red tape and approval processes would mean that such a project could have taken up to six months.
The experience of DWP has also demonstrated how the public sector can overcome challenges by using technology, such as smart AI and data and analytics, all of which can be deployed quickly when needed. We’ve helped the DWP to use technology such as Conversational AI to provide a channel for continuing to get work done and a critical lifeline for citizens needing help.
The pandemic has seen us tear up the rule book. Where people typically communicated with and within the department via the telephone or face-to-face meetings, the pandemic meant that they had to quickly find other ways of communicating, enquiring, solving problems, working in situations where a human interaction is no longer possible. These challenges can be overcome by better use of Virtual, Smart AI, Data & Analytics.
Andy: What’s interesting now is identifying the positive things that this change may herald. Now we’ve moved to a new way of working, we could see real cultural gains. There are few people who would not have wanted to adopt more environmentally-friendly lifestyles with greater work-life balance, where they can bring their whole selves to work – if there’s a silver lining to this pandemic, could this be it? How do we support the culture shift required to maintain this new way of operating?
Aimie: There are a couple of areas to address here. The first is culture within a community, so how to get consumers and citizens to adapt to new ways of working. The private sector uses incentives, which it switches on and off quickly. It uses intelligent data to get people to adopt new ways of working and the public sector needs to be a lot smarter at doing this.
Word of mouth, personal recommendation and the use of social media is much more prevalent in the private sector – if things are easy or satisfying to use, people recommend them. If the public sector could find a way to get citizens to use this approach and change the way they behave, it would be an alternative to its default of switching services off rather than protecting them.
Internal culture, similarly, is stop, start, continue. Parts of government have transformed digitally in a very successful way, but others are still behind the curve. Government departments should start using agile scrums, fail fast ideas, proof of concept, so that it can quickly launch new ideas and approaches and if they don’t work, they don’t work.
The stumbling block here, of course, is that government departments would need strong political sponsorship to introduce new ways of working and a different culture to service the community.
Andy: Helping clients to adapt during the pandemic has taught me how much can be achieved at speed if the need is there. The technology and the knowledge is already there – having the impetus for change to sweep aside deep-rooted behaviours and assumptions about how we work has meant we’ve been able to change radically, fast. What learnings and discoveries have you seen during this period?
Aimie: I’ve seen greater collaboration. Lesson number one for being successful in an emergency situation like a global pandemic is the ability to collaborate with clients to get things done. When time is of the essence and services must be protected or enhanced, everyone throws the commercial playbook out and just gets things done.
I’ve also seen plenty of instances of the ‘Apollo 13 moment’, when people just work together until they come up with an answer that saves lives. They’re often people who have never met or never will meet in person, and we need to maintain that attitude in the future.
Lesson – number two is that it’s okay to fail, test and move on – to adopt that R&D culture and agility. It’s amazing how resilient and supportive people are and how much they want to adapt and change and get results.
Andy: When we get past this pandemic, we should hold onto the positive outcomes of this experience. What do you believe the future looks like within customer and citizen management?
Aime: You’re absolutely right – we’ve learned an awful lot during the past few months and we need to make sure that we put that learning to work. I think that the future of customer and citizen management looks incredibly bright and highlights the need for high-quality customer experience management and customer service management. The pandemic has reinforced the need to blend the best of digital (AI and data and analytics) with the best of people – in the form of an augmented advisor – matching the best-skilled advisor with the best training and the best onboarding and giving them the tools to do their jobs, for instance giving them access to real-time data that shows how customers are feeling.
Blending people with technology, not replacing them with it, to deliver a first-class customer experience is the future.
There are a couple of great examples of how teams from across Capita came together to help the Government respond very quickly to citizen demand. We helped the Cabinet Office to roll out its labour market match programme by supplying 12 full-time, home-based employees within 24 hours. We also helped the DWP to respond to an enormous surge in applications for Universal Income from people who had lost their jobs or were on reduced income thanks to Covid-19, by redeploying 1,200 of our own employees to work from home on the DWP’s behalf.
Deployments of this kind usually take months but we ripped up the rule book and collaborated with clients and across Capita to achieve clients’ objectives in just a matter of week, despite being unable to meet with clients in person as we would normally do.
A blend of speed, collaboration and technology is key to their success.