How can the public sector build trust in the digital age?

Citizens on a train on their electronic devices

Written by Chris Doutney, Executive Director, Civica Digital

Every innovation which brings about change creates issues around trust. For example, look at how trust in the banking system has evolved; in the space of 20 years we’ve switched from visiting a bank in person and paying with cheques, to being able to manage our finances remotely via mobile and  from any location. While this digital interaction is now viewed as normal, this innovation didn’t happen overnight – trust in digital banking had to be earned over a period of time. 

The public sector currently has a perceived issue around trust. In the era of increased data sharing, combined with growing concerns around data privacy, public sector organisations recognise the need to work hard to create a solid foundation of trust to enable them to innovate in the digital age. But this will not be an easy task; at our recent Leadership Forum, we gathered key decision makers across local government, housing, health and finance to discuss this very issue.

Put power back in the citizens’ hands

There is a long-held assumption that citizens are hesitant to trust authorities with their information. However, our recent Civica research found that more than half (53%) of citizens would have greater trust in organisations if they were more transparent about the personal data they store and how they use it. Our research also found that the main issues surrounding the sharing of data centred on the security of how data is held and the lack of control they have.

The recently introduced GDPR regulation, of course, gives citizens more control and serves as a great opportunity for public sector organisations to be really clear with citizens on the use of their data. Through a dialogue of collaboration, we can build better trust and accountability with citizens.

Consultation, not dictation

One common misconception is that more education is needed around promoting the benefits of data sharing to encourage trust – the issue is actually a lot more complex than this. It can be argued that, by and large, citizens already know these benefits and, in some cases, provide overwhelming support towards data sharing. For example, speaking about hospitals in Northern Ireland, Siobhan Hanna, Assistant Director of Informatics, Southern Health & Social Care Trust told the panel: “Northern Ireland is a small country with a lot of hospitals, and it’s highly likely that a patient could receive emergency care in any of these hospitals. Therefore, having access to critical patient data, and the permission to share it with ease was, and remains, vital. This has been facilitated by a Northern Ireland Electronic Care Record (NIECR) portal, shared across all health and social care organisations, including GPs.”

This example shows how success was achieved through consultation and not dictation. There’s something to be said for personalisation as a tool to help consult and build up this trust. Customers are used to an Amazon-level style of personalisation where their historic data is used to provide them with a tailored service and user interface – creating a challenge for the public sector to demonstrate the same capability and ultimately earn the same level of trust. 

There are, of course, examples of local authorities doing this well. At the Leadership Forum the panel heard from Carol Cutler, Director of Business Transformation & Customer Services, London Borough of Harrow Council. At Harrow they created authenticated customer accounts where the citizen could choose which services they wished to have digitised, letting them create their own customised portal. The various responses from residents proved you cannot force a ‘one-size-fits-all’ single view of all your citizens.

In short, the public sector cannot make assumptions about what citizens want and expect. Everyone has different levels of what they are willing to share, and how many services they want to access digitally. But all of the shining examples we heard during the Leadership Forum had one salient thing in common – they brought citizens on a journey with them. It’s not just about educating residents on the reasons for, and benefits of, change; it’s also about close consultation and working together to co-create sustainable solutions and, ultimately, maintain a strong foundation of trust.


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