On July 7th 2016, colleagues were invited to join iNetwork in our second annual digital conference. The overarching theme for this year was “Improving Quality of Life in a Digital Age”.

Throughout the public sector and beyond we are seeing the increasing use of the word digital and phrases like “digital by default” “digital inclusion” “channel shift/migration” “shaping demand” etc. iNetwork’s digital conference aimed to unpick some of these almost clichéd phrases and get stuck in to the really important stuff; How can we use digital technology in the sector to make significant, measurable improvements to the lives of our citizens, patients and customers?

In this blog we will:

-Briefly summarise some of the Conference’s recurring themes.

  • Digital’s role promoting in Health, Happiness and Quality of Life
  • Digital Inclusion
  • Prevention and Early Intervention

-Explain why this event was so valuable and explore some of the challenges we still face

-Provide links to all of the resources from the conference

Benefits: Health, Happiness and Quality of Life

Very early on in the day, in the opening plenary presentations, we joined 100 or so delegates and colleagues in learning that it is important to consider happiness one of the most important measures of progress when it comes to public service reform; digital or otherwise.

Digital technology and digital public services have enormous potential for improving people’s happiness in a variety of ways. They can give people better access to, and more information about, available public services and community support networks than ever before.  They can improve user navigation through services and allow those services to become more joined up within and between organisations. They can also help connect vulnerable people to friends, family, carers and other crucial support networks which can  increase a person’s happiness and, in doing so, directly reduce the pressure on frontline services.

We know, for example, that people who consider themselves to be lonely are far more likely to experience difficulties with their mental and physical health and, therefore, are far more likely to present themselves to, and become dependent on, expensive statutory services. Making the often heroic and selfless job of carers and voluntary support networks in communities easier is task too often overlooked. It should be seen to be just as important as helping those vulnerable people who are the heaviest users of frontline services. Digital technologies can make primary care of friends and relatives far more manageable and efficient. It can free up carer time and allow for effective long distance care in an increasingly globalised world. We are seeing some great progress in these spaces such as the development of dedicated carer’s networks and citizen needs profiling and service listing being supported by digital technologies. 

Building digital skills and confidence in struggling groups not only can improve quality of life by making preventative public and community services more streamlined and accessible, but these skills can also increase happiness by making people more employable and making them feel less excluded from society as a whole. We are also seeing an increasing number of successful digital projects which aim to improve public health by promoting healthy eating, exercise and financial responsibility. We heard one case study from Barclays UK about of how one individual was able to greatly improve their life outcomes through Barclays digital life skills programme.


Digital Inclusion

There are, of course, still major challenges when it comes to reaching out to vulnerable individuals and groups who have yet to feel the extensive benefits of increasingly joined up and digital public services. This is where we see the relevance of another of the main tropes of the iNetwork Digital Conference.

The issue of digital inclusion is becoming more and more serious as public service providers at local and national levels are moving towards adopting a ‘digital first approach’ to commissioning. To make the issue even graver, almost paradoxically, it tends to be the most reluctant and digitally excluded individuals, often older people, primary carers, people lacking in digital skills and qualifications, mentally ill and disabled people etc,that, due to the nature of their often complex cross-organisational needs would stand to gain the most from the efficiencies created when public services are effectively digitised.  

As we learnt from Adam Micklethwaite and the Tinder foundation, Digital exclusion is a huge issue and pursuing digital inclusion strategies can yield huge economic benefits.

In order for people to improve the quality of their lives, and simultaneously, for public services to reduce the burden on their finances and professional capacity, what we need is a cohesive strategy for digital inclusion. Particularly For targeting those “low Volume & High Touch” service interactions at the bottom of the service delivery pyramid (from Eric Applewhite’s GM-Connect keynote session) above. For this reason, iNetwork digital went with “digital inclusion” as one of its three main sub themes on the day. Throughout the conference, delegates had the chance to listen to strategies, from various different sectors and perspectives, for increasing digital inclusion, especially among the most vulnerable/frequent service users. .

In one of the morning’s keynote talks, Alison Mckenzie Folan gave an overview of the Wigan Deal, which is considered a great example of a successful digital strategy from a public service provider. The Wigan deal encompasses, amongst other things, a commitment to financial investment in digital services and cohesive inclusion strategies including embracing social media as a means to communicate with service users. In celebration of Wigan Council’s pioneering digital work, they were named digital council of the year 2016 at the LGC awards.

Continuing the theme of digital inclusion, we heard in Ken Clemens’ morning workshop session about the work of age UK in engaging with older people, carers and community groups directly with simple yet effective digital projects and investments. We heard, for example, about how age UK had sponsored development of “speakset”. A simple technology which allows older people to use their television sets (a technology they are largely familiar and comfortable with) to video chat with friends, relatives and carers. The power of conversation and functional social groups has been proven beyond reasonable doubt to sometimes be the difference between a happy and active lifestyle and long-term residential care for many people. Age UK also hold various workshops for people to come and directly engage with them in learning about digital technologies such as iPad parties and computer training courses.  

We also learnt throughout the day about the importance of targeting digital services to be as supportive as possible of voluntary carers, charities and community groups who are all too often overlooked. The input of voluntary carers into the health and social care system is estimated to be in the tens of billions. Given their enormous contribution to society and with approximately 6 out of 10 of us set to become primary carers at some point in our lives it is absolutely vital we do all we can to shape digital service innovation around their experiences and needs.

Prevention and Early Intervention: The use of data

It was also became clear, over the course of the day, that, in parallel to the endeavours laid out above, we need to make every effort to prevent frontline and support services from ever being needed in the first place. Throughout the digital conference, we learnt from various expert speakers that one of the key enablers of this prevention of service demand of this was the intelligent use of data.

The consensus was, that, in order to mount an effective prevention strategy, we need to ensure that organisations are ready and able to freely and securely share relevant, often sensitive, data. This in itself is a mammoth task, but one which will lead to massive efficiency improvements when it comes to digital and automated services. Once this has been achieved, if not nationally or even regionally but at least within an organisation or groups of services within organisations, we can begin to consider how to effectively map collated data to identify individuals and groups at risk of long term dependence on statutory services. We have already seen some work in this area taking place as part of the Troubled Families programme, but much more is needed.

We heard from Liz St Louis of Sunderland Council  about their experiences in using intelligent data mapping to intervene and prevent before complex service demands emerge. We also saw the benefits of digitally mapped data in other projects which simultaneously saved local authority money and made marked improved local communities, the “community clean-up information system” was one such example which was enabled mapping of animal fouling incidents against the location of dog bins and dog control areas. We heard, that, Initially the map did not match up at all, and that through the intelligent mapping of several data repositories, it’s now starting to. This issue may seem a little trivial but anybody who has worked with elected members and politicians will be all too aware that this is an emotive issue that carries an awful lot of weight. In turn then, projects like this are incredibly important for communicating the vast benefits of digitally mapped data and information to wider circles than just the tech community.

There were numerous other examples of this kind of preventative work which we learnt about on the day including the work of Sheffield Council in predictive modelling and risk stratification and, from a health perspective, the work Trafford CCG in joining up services and information silos to allow for better analytics and improve patient outcomes.

The value of the conference & the challenge ahead

From the day’s 19 excellent seminar and workshop sessions we firmly established that digital technology and innovation in public services has enormous potential to improve outcomes for citizens and service providers alike. We had also seen numerous, first-hand, practical examples of programmes and innovations already taking place across the sector which are achieving significant results. iNetwork’s digital conference, then, and events like it, are vital for public service providers for a number of different reasons. Events like these enable the sector to look outwardly at the excellent work of colleagues from across the UK and beyond. The lessons learned, challenges faced and innovations made can be freely shared, tackled and celebrated together.

We learnt that it is important to cast our gaze as wide as possible, we heard about great work in digitising public services being carried out by our European partners in Scandinavia and the Netherlands. This work is no less worthy of sharing and celebration. We heard from Ken Clemens early in the day that it is imperative that we do away with that myopic attitude of “it’s different round here”. Digital innovations by their nature do best when they are nationalised and internationalised.

We also learnt from iNetwork Digital that one of the main challenges in delivering innovative digital services is, on top of the design, application and inclusion etc is communicating the proven successes to senior leaders and policy makers. That is where, as delegates, our main responsibilities lie. We should see it as our duty to share these inspirational stories and successes with as many people as will listen, both within our own organisations and beyond. As we learnt from one of our seminar speakers, Lorraine Jubb, to do this we must become bi-lingual champions of digital innovation, speaking, with confidence, in both technical and emotional language.

At iNetwork we are proud to be a vehicle for sharing and communication of your digital success stories. We hope you can join us at similar digital events in the future and share in taking the next steps in this inspiring journey.


Resources from iNetwork Digital

Speakers: https://i-network.org.uk/speakers/

Sponsors: https://i-network.org.uk/sponsors

Storify: https://storify.com/Louis_Stockwell/inetwork-digital-2016-storified

Presentations:  https://i-network.org.uk/inetwork-digital-7th-july/ (Presentations are only available to iNetwork members)