Features: September 5th, 2002

Joined Up Services

By Richard Veryard

Reproduced by permission of the Public Management and Policy Association.

The notion of “Joined-Up Government” implies new channels linking, and new points of connection between the many different elements of government: from policy-making through operations to service provision. As the UK Government’s espoused policy, therefore, it raises structural and administrative issues, as well as presenting technological challenges. This article identifies a number of important requirements for the effective management of joined-up services.

New relationships need new structures

Government provides a wide range of services to citizens – both individual and corporate. These services are currently provided by a large number of departments and units – which we may call the administrative “components” of government. As well as providing services directly to the public, they may also provide various “internal” services to one another. Human resources, administration, information and communications technology are just some examples of this.

Integrating these services has the effect of changing the relationship between the components that provide or manage them. In some cases, these components will need to be more closely coordinated or “tightly coupled”. This may be achieved by a combination of new technological mechanisms and organizational/ administrative measures, or even by reorganizing the structure of government. If the responsibility for delivering a service is split between several departments, this is likely to result in higher costs as well as greater opportunities for error and delay.

This leads to the first requirement: To align the structure of Government to the structure of the demand for services.

But this is easier said than done. While it is tempting to define the services in a way that preserves the existing structure, this typically fails to accommodate external demands and changes. Sometimes, a radical regrouping is called for, using sophisticated clustering algorithms to find the optimal shape of the organization.
Complete – and flexible – response needed

For the user of the service, the primary need is to complete a transaction of some kind. Joining-up services adds value for the user if it makes a complete transaction simpler, quicker or more reliable. But this depends on each individual user’s notion of what constitutes a complete transaction – and this notion of completeness may be quite different from the service provider’s notion. Each group of users may have not just a different set of requirements, but a different notion of completeness.

Understanding what people really want is key. In some cases, especially with disadvantaged groups or communities, citizens may need some assistance articulating their demands. In all cases, the challenge is to listen and respond rather than assume and prescribe or impose.

In many commercial situations, a service provider has no interest or responsibility in providing a complete service. For example, an airline may not provide a complete holiday, merely a segment of the journey. Or a caterer may not accept responsibility for providing the customer with a balanced diet. Governments are, however, generally expected to provide complete and meaningful services, and this leads to the second requirement: To respond flexibly to the citizen’s demand for a complete transaction.

While it may be useful to wire together the elements of a complete transaction from the citizen’s point of view, it is necessary to do this is a way that maintains a high degree of adaptability – both to changing citizen requirements and profiles, and to evolving policy regimes. This leads to the third requirement: To build a consistent and efficient service from independent building blocks.

Restoring clarity and coherence to service provision

The building blocks of government services need to be meaningful and coherent from the perspectives of both the service user and the service provider. They must also be meaningful in policy terms. Clarity and coherence are often lost with the piecemeal growth of services, and this can lead to complexity in provision and to an equally complex pattern of demand. Addressing this often requires a step-by-step process of rationalization and simplification of structure, sometimes known as refactoring. What we’re talking about here is three-dimensional refactoring – simultaneously juggling service use, service provision, and policy – which is extremely hard to do properly.

When independent services are combined, there are often unexpected side effects. While some may be beneficial, others are unwanted and lead to inconsistent or incoherent services. The technical term for this phenomenon is feature interaction. Considerable prior analysis and testing needs to be done to avoid this, and ongoing monitoring and auditing are required to detect anomalies in operation.

Using technology to effect change

Technology is a significant enabler for joined-up services. It allows services to be delivered directly to the citizen, for example through the Internet. It also allows administrative systems and databases to be linked electronically. In the past, integration of multiple systems usually meant bringing them onto a single technical platform. Nowadays, integration can be achieved more cost-effectively using special “middleware” or “web services”, which can provide a bridge between different technical platforms. This leads to the fourth requirement: To use technology to bridge between heterogeneous systems and users.

Technology change is one of the many causes of stress and anxiety for those working in public services. While technology change and some degree of consequent stress, may be unavoidable, it is counter-productive to overload any organization to the extent that sustainable productivity and excellence is no longer routinely accessible. The fifth and sixth requirements are therefore: To balance technology change with the capacity of the organization to accommodate technology change. and To increase the capacity of the organization to accommodate change.

While, however, joined-up government is enabled by technology, it is not solely a technological project. At its core, joined-up-government is about connections between people – both inside government and outside – for which technology may provide a medium both for service delivery and other forms of communication.

Of course, technology may modify the service – not only are emails different in tone and style to traditional letters, they are also different in volume. Receiving several thousand emails is qualitatively different to receiving a handful of letters.

The challenge of large-scale change

Joining up people in government has an important effect on the institutional culture of government. If the constant joining and rejoining of services becomes a permanent feature of government administration, the psychological contract for public servants will increasingly be aligned to the service, and to ‘dynamic’ joins, rather than to ‘fixed’ departmental positions.

Incremental (stepwise) change can be very difficult to manage, especially when so many people are driven by short-term results. Large numbers of small steps may be taken; while each may be meaningful in isolation, they may add up to gross confusion and ultimately fail to meet the underlying policy requirements. In industry, longer-term strategic investment in organizational capability and learning may, at least theoretically, be converted into tangible value by being reflected in the shareprice. In Government, there is no directly equivalent measure of tangible value, and the benefits of organizational learning can only be experienced indirectly, for example from the enhanced ability to develop and implement future policy.

This is where the intelligent service-based approach potentially scores – by allowing large complex organizations to deliver short-term results while paying attention to longer-term issues of organizational adaptability and improvement. It supports organic planning, in which large-scale coherence can be developed without large-scale cost and disruption. While ill-considered and rigid service-based structures frequently lead to enormous problems, proper attention to flexible service-based structure can yield significant short-term and longer-term benefits.