Public Services: Expectations of an iPhone generation?

I met Louise Macdonald about 6 months ago and will never forget it. Her work with the Young Scot charity was well known but it was the passion and conviction of her words that stuck with me. I have wanted a post from her for ages and am delighted to present this piece in its entirety, despite her request for an editor. Covering the technology expectations of young people, democracies' relationship with citizens, DirectGov paid for by advertisers, social change it packs a punch, worth taking your time over ...

Louise is Chief Exec of award-winning youth information charity Young Scot, which supports young people aged 11-26 to make informed decisions and choices as they navigate through life. After an early dalliance with journalism, Louise switched careers to the voluntary sector, specialising in community engagement and young people. She is a CEO who tweets, FBs and also Blipfotos...that last of which increasingly takes up most of her sadly all too rare spare time.

I was asked to speak recently on the above question. As the CEO of a national young people’s charity, I’m a regular public speaker, and I do still get hugely nervous before any event, but this one sent me into a right old tizz. It struck me as such an important question, as it goes to the heart of a topic that has been on my mind for a long time now – how can we make social media and digital technologies work for vulnerable young people?

Below is what I said on the day. I’d love thoughts/comments/contributions to this as it was more of a conversation-starter than a conclusion-offer!

“Most people think that the iPhone generation look like the line-up of One Direction, but in reality, they don’t – they look like me. Recent stats show around 26% of iPhone users are under the age of 26 – only 6% under 18. Most are 26-50. Most young people – currently – are actually using Blackberries, Sony Erikssons and Nokia’s - great messaging and great music/text packages but of course that will change, next month, and the month after that. They are increasingly on social networks like FB, where 43% are  under 25, and on Twitter – about 16-22% of under 26’s.

We have absolutely no idea what the technology that today’s teenagers will be using in 10 years time, and know even less about what actual teenagers in 10 years time will be using. But, what is changing – thanks to technology – is how young people interact with information – how they access it, how they share it, how they act on it. And that – I think – is what forms the heart of revolution that public services will have to undergo over the next 10 years.

I’m going to quote here from social media guru Clay Shirky, who says that digital technologies are the start of a change journey which will not take us from Point A to Point B. Instead, it will be from Point A to chaos – he predicts 50 years of chaos.

Democracies – and I use that word deliberately here – will have to adapt, because this is a revolution which will go to the very heart of the relationship with citizens – expectations of what public services in particular are FOR, and how they should be delivered, will change beyond all recognition.

When thinking about how young people right NOW, are influenced by technology, there are lots of broad trends we can interrogate (though there are always exceptions and they are open to challenge):

  • Always, always ON. Always available, always connected. Their phones are their computers – they sleep with them on the pillow. This generation has never not known the internet.
  • This changes how they access information – they no longer need to “store” info, because it is always at their fingertips. Point of note – in South Korea they start to teach children how to search – properly – on Google, at age 3. Also – top tip – if you don’t appear on the homepage in a Google search, then you are invisible to young people – you don’t exist.
  • Young people have their own capacity to access information – there are no gatekeepers.
  • Young people learn and create amongst themselves – publishing/sharing content is now a one button operation that costs no money.
  • Young people expect 24/7 accessibility and availability. They can also immediately scrutinise information or a service via discussion forums, comparison sites or social networks. They can also quickly broadcast if it’s good – and if it’s bad...
  • There is no barrier to finding communities you want – or even creating your own – it’s all out there and easily found thanks to social networks.
  • And these networks don’t need industrial scale infrastructure – they are loose-knit and non-hierarchical. When they turn into groups that are about social action, then they turn the 80/20 model on its head.
  • And finally – crucially - connectivity is now seen as a right – it is the new utility.

So far, so we’ve kinda guessed this – but I stress again – this is only what has happened so far – we’ve got another 40+ years of this chaos to go if Clay Shirky is right...

So, if this is the trajectory of change in the past five years – and we know that these things speed up, not slow down - then it is clear that this will challenge institutions and professions one at a time. In fact you could argue that the commercial sector has already been through, or is still coming to terms with, its response to this challenge and now it’s time for the public and voluntary sectors.

We know there are some shining examples of innovation going on in the public sector – TechCrunch, Rewired State and Young Rewired State, UsNow, AppsForGood etc – all fantastic stuff. But let’s get real. Right now, the vast majority of public bodies are operating on IE6 and most can’t get past their own internal firewalls.

The issue reported by many digital evangelists is that middle and senior managers just don’t get it. Is that a generation clash or a cultural one?  Or a professional one? Is it about power?? Whatever, what it is, is a big tension. And if middle managers don’t get it now, what happens when they become senior...?

There is a chronic lack of investment in the public sector in technology – and we can all provide a long list of reasons why that is. But as I was asked to be controversial, let me throw a couple into this mix. Do public services WANT to engage with this new world order of citizens enabled by technology? Can they cope with the demand that an enhanced customer journey will bring? And not just demand in terms of resources, but also demand in terms of accountability?

Secondly, the media is absolutely merciless in its criticism of any public body trying to innovate with technology – it is always seen as a waste of money instead of focussing on front line service, with no room for experimentation or getting it wrong. But more and more, technology IS a frontline service – or at least part of it.

So if we are at a stage in the game where the public sector cannot afford to invest in technology nor cope with demand already, where does that leave us? How long will it be before outsourcing becomes the norm, and DirectGov is a platform paid for by advertisers and affinity deals?

Community mobilisation around social change is without doubt going to be the biggest challenge the current and future iPhone generations pose to the public sector. At the moment, people are put off any good citizen spirited engagement with a public body, because it is perceived to mean – and sadly often does mean - hassle and friction. But how do we turn this on its head and create scenarios where smartphones are the tools to save community? To build it?

Now, let’s not get caught up in questions about who’s got access to broadband – absolutely vital though that is. I’m talking more here about how can technology help public services to deliver better for all – that’s the key. How can services work with communities and people to meet expectations?

There is no silver bullet – and this isn’t just about ticking the co-production box – it’s bigger than that. But, in all of this, for me, the key question is how do we ensure no one gets left behind. Surely social cohesion, inclusion and fairness is what public services are FOR? Isn’t it? A safety net or damage limitation?

Not sure if you’ve seen the film Inception (you should if you haven’t) but in one scene they’re discussing how to implant an idea in someone’s head and discuss various means of persuasion. At each suggestion however, Leonardo Di Caprio’s character rebuts that they shouldn’t use negative thoughts to persuade but positive, that people respond much better to it.

As those who know me will know, that is how I operate. So – I want you to view my final point as a challenge to react positively to, not become defensive and seek only ways to absolve ourselves.

In all of our discussions about iPhone generations, the power of social media and the like, let’s remember today that public services are about just that – the public – it is about human beings. In October 2009, Neve Lafferty and Georgia Rowe slipped out of the residential childcare unit they were in, and walked to the Erskine Bridge in the early hours of the morning. There, hand in hand, they jumped into the darkness. They were 14 and 15. They had a history of “coming to the attention of the police” as it is so gently phrased.  

Think for a minute about ALL of the public bodies that would have had some role in their lives – teachers, social workers, police, children’s reporters, youth workers, possibly voluntary organisations. This is not about a blame culture, but we cannot come to any other conclusion than our society and our collective systems failed them. That is what I would like technology to tackle – could it have helped to join services up, streamline them, make them better?  

Did Neve and Georia have smartphones? I doubt it. Does it matter? No. Do you think their expectations of the public services that they came into contact with were met?

So for me, in thinking about innovation and reform, and future service delivery models, I’d like us to be putting our wit, will and collective wisdom into nurturing the big ideas which mean that this will never ever happen again.”