This is the third in a blog series by Keith Harrison-Broninski FRSA, which explores a new way for cities, towns and rural communities to tackle the effects of austerity. The series explains the ideas behind the approach, how it was initially proven within the NHS, and how it has now become a larger scale initiative - Town Digital Hub (TDH) that is being supported by the RSA.
Town Digital Hub enables a new model for public services, based on "collaboration plans" that include local voluntary and community groups as key stakeholders. This not only helps solve the really hard problems in a community by bringing together all the stakeholders in health, social services, education, policing, justice, housing, transport, and more, to switch services from reactive and curative to proactive and preventative - it also saves money for councils.
According to the Local Government Association, "The 2013 Spending Round cuts will result in cumulative cuts of 43 per cent by 2015/16." Similarly, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations has said that, "To find efficiency savings, local authorities could consider encouraging some charities to work together on projects that target mutual beneficiaries … the main benefit of encouraging collaboration will be efficiency and long term cost savings." A joint report from Impetus Trust & New Philanthropy Capital in 2013 stated that "The most complex problems - tackling inter-generational unemployment in families, rehabilitating offenders, equipping young people in care to lead fulfilling lives - cannot be solved by services that work in isolation. Partnering with other organisations … can significantly increase social impact, whilst reducing inefficiencies and unnecessary duplication across the sector."
There are three main reasons why councils can make the major savings they need via collaboration plans in a Town Digital Hub. All three result from making collaboration transparent, by using a simple structure that people can understand, and putting it online so that people can see it.
- Many people who work for local organisations do so on a voluntary or "mates rates" basis, which minimises staff costs. However, people will only be motivated to commit to such work over the long-term if they can see how their efforts are delivering positive outcomes for the community they seek to support. The reward sought by volunteers is simply to know that their contribution is having a positive impact.
- By joining up the efforts of all stakeholder organisations in a community, it is possible to identify where effort is duplicated and can be eliminated. However, those involved in (for example) a charity that provides companionship and a charity that provides transport for elderly people in villages, have different goals. They can only reduce overlaps in the services they provide by using a collaboration plan to understand how their goals are related, and how all those goals can be achieved via a common set of shared services.
- By providing an integrated set of public services, people in the community can not only see what services are available (and how to use them), but they can also provide feedback on how effective the services are. This enables the service providers to adjust the services on offer exactly to the true needs of the community - in other words, to eliminate waste and operate at maximum effectiveness.
An example of how collaboration can work across the public, third and private sector is transport in rural Somerset, where recent bus cuts to villages are leading to fundamental re-thinking that includes a variety of stakeholders. Among the options being considered are minibus services, taxi sharing, car sharing, lift sharing, short-term car hire, combining companionship care with hospital transport, new and more structured forms of hitch-hiking, and many other potentially complementary solutions to a wide-ranging set of challenges.
However, while such radical rethinking leads to both cheaper and better services, it also means that more options become available to the public. So how can people be helped to understand what services are available to them, which are best suited to their needs, and how to access them - especially when some of them do not even use the Internet? Over 1 in 7 British adults have never been online.
Ending digital exclusion requires not only a range of hand-holding strategies but also giving people a reason to make the jump into the digital world - and for disadvantaged people such as those without Internet access, their biggest need may well be access to public services. So, the problem is self-reinforcing - without online access, they can't get the services that would help solve small daily problems, which then grow into much more expensive chronic conditions.
Conversely, were it possible to use the Internet to simplify access to public services for disadvantaged people, then they would get help earlier - i.e., proactive, preventative help, which is typically much cheaper to provide than reactive, curative help. For example, if an elderly person is less isolated by having regular companionship, they are less likely to end up spending days on the floor after a fall, unable to reach the telephone, with mental and physical after-effects that not only ruin their quality of life but require expensive, protracted care.
So as part of implementing a Town Digital Hub, volunteers go out to the community with cheap mini-tablets to show people the public services that it showcases. However, is a TDH just another directory, like the council and community websites already available?
The achilles heel of directories is that, as soon as they are published, they are out of date. It is constant, hard and ultimately impossible to keep most directories up to date, since not only does the data itself change but also the sources of data. In the case of public services, modern government is a moving target, and the private and third sectors even more so. A simpler, sustainable alternative is a website directly based on definitions of the services, as supplied by service providers themselves in TDH collaboration plans. Not only will this automatically be up to date at all times, but it also offers people the chance to provide feedback, for example, via Twitter. Since such feedback goes straight to the service providers, they can use it to continually adjust their offerings, targeting them precisely to people's needs as these needs change over time, and thus getting best value out of the resources they have available.
In the next instalment of this blog series, I will look at how we use the creation of a TDH as an opportunity to give young people high value skills, and networks of contacts that increase their employability.
I would welcome any feedback on the blogs and the project. It would be great to hear your own ideas and experiences in comments – we seek to engage with communities both across the UK and internationally, so if you would like a digital hub for your own community (town, city, neighbourhood, district, county, or non-geographical), then please do get in touch directly.
Previous blogs in this series:
How austerity can result in better public services
Collaborate has 5 Cs