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The Way I See It… Knowledge Communities in the Public Sector


Cyber CafeChris Yapp, Head of Public Sector Innovation at Microsoft, explains why virtual communities, for learning and more, should be at the heart of our public services.

Around the world we find many governments involved in the modernisation or transformation of public services. There is a common rhetoric around notions of putting the learner at the heart of education, or the patient at the centre of the health experience. Sometimes the story focuses on a 1-1 relationship between the state and the citizen, which I believe misses out on some of the richness that technology suitably deployed could add to the public realm.

It was back in 2001, in his Party conference speech that Tony Blair outlined a view that “one size no longer fits all”. We could argue that actually “one size fits no-one”, if the compromises in building a “vanilla service” are incompatible with a society that is increasingly more complex in makeup. For instance, with over 300 languages spoken in London and increased sophistication of the “consumer” or citizen”, the challenges to the public realm require great flexibility and adaptability.

For a few years now, the ideas around the “co-production” of services have been popular within the policy wonk circus. By blurring the distinction between provider and consumer of services, we can respond dynamically to the challenges of choice and personalisation in ways that were impossible a few years ago.

It is here that we can learn from the practice in successful e-commerce. When I buy a book or CD or DVD from Amazon, I find the feedback on what else people bought frequently takes me to places that I would not have thought of myself. In this I have broadened my reading habits and tastes in music. Rather than a 1-1 relationship with Amazon and my other favourite sites, the services I value and repeatedly use are those that have that kind of personalised feedback. In the UK we are well placed in terms of the availability of public services online, but we are behind in terms of uptake of those services.

This is why I feel that thinking about community building online is a key part of growing the acceptability and relevance of this way of delivering public services.

I am not arguing that Health, Education or Criminal Justice can be turned into branches of retail, but there are important lessons that can be shared.

Experience changes expectation, both good and bad experiences. What keeps people coming back is a consistent level of service combined with relevance. Instead of having to guess what consumers or citizens want and spotting changes in expectations we can now engage in a constant dialogue that allows for organisations and the services they deliver to evolve with changing needs based on experience rather than focus groups or the like. The cultural challenges in moving from an “opaque” to a more open model are not to be minimised or ignored, but the growth in trust between the citizen and government through enlightened community building is a prize worth going for.

The challenge for public sector organisations in assuming this model is how to effect the cultural changes required. I see this as primarily being the responsibility of senior management, but any shift in of this type must be supported by targeted training and support. Individuals involved in building virtual communities need to be equipped with the skills to deal with a new way of working with citizens, but also in translating that work back into their own organisations.

It is I believe also a way of engaging the public around issues where the “top down” “nanny state” accusations may get in the way of the substance of policy. In tackling obesity or other public health issues for instance, as a society we are sceptical of the “experts”. Peer pressure on such issues such as smoking cessation are, in the long term, probably more effective than legislation.

I am far from claiming that all the ills of our society can be cured either by technology or by communities, but they provide a richer battery of approaches in the transformation of public services than we have so far recognised.


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