How to beat austerity and provide public services with technology

The age of austerity is here, and public sector budgets are getting squeezed. So how can you keep services running while keeping costs low?

The digital customer likes the empowerment the Internet gives them and will happily use online versions of a public sector organisation's services if available and - of course - if they meet their requirements. But it's much more than this. In the public sector, giving digital customers what they want can drive additional material benefits.

But how can you keep delivering quality services when budgets are getting lashed left, right and centre?

1. Use sensors

The US city of Boston was one of the first cities in the world to discover the power of the citizen-carried sensor – the smartphone. When they released a fully-integrated smartphone app for the good people of Boston to report issues such as potholes and graffiti when they found them, the city planners had no idea that some civic-minded Bostonians would actually go out for walks with the specific aim of looking for problems just to report them over the app. This meant the city authorities were finding and fixing more problems than ever before, and saved money by intervening in problems before they got worse, and avoiding litigation.

In Australia, researchers have had similar success with an app for mapping noise pollution across major cities.

2. Make your customers "virtual employees"

As the private sector has found already, customers will accept interacting with services primarily via the Internet, even for more complex online services, provided they are appropriately secure, convenient to access and can be completed in their entirety online.

3. Tap in to social chatter

An increasing number of smartphone apps enable citizens to not only report problems, but also share it on their social networks. Public sector organisations should tap in to this huge wealth of customer feedback in order to better tailor services to their needs. Sure, the occasional storm of criticism or social media blunder can be embarrassing, but the benefits outweigh the costs.

4. Re-use what works

You don't need to have an email system tailored to each government department, for instance. One email system is more or less like another, so if an email system works for one department, roll it out across the board. This reduces complexity and cost, and can be done for any number of interchangeable systems.

5. Prioritise projects

We've all heard about some of the spectacular IT project failures undertaken by the government, so we know the costs of embarking on ill-advised projects.

As we go into the age of austerity, the success of IT departments will be measured as much by the projects they reject as the ones they pick up. Do proper cost assessments using independent advisors, and set out with a clear goal in mind.