I spoke at VRM Hub this week about the implications of VRM on the public sector. If you’re new to the idea of VRM (Vendor Relationship Management) then you should check out this nifty explanation by Adriana Lukas.
I thought it would probably be best to start with trying to figure out what I mean by ‘the state’, since we could be talking about a variety of bits of the spaghetti of government. In fact, the full list of all the different bits are on the Direct Gov website. There’s a prize if you can find the weirdest bit of government. I’m also thinking that in some cases charities or voluntary sector organisations could count as ‘the state’ since they are often grant funded by the government and therefore do their bidding.
The big question is why VRM matters for the state – there’s lots of good stuff about how it can help us transact with companies better but not much out there on how it can help us improve the balance in our relationship with government institutions. I think it’s crucial. For a start off, interaction with the state is complex and you can’t take control. We have little choice over how our data is used or kept safe (missing memory stick, anyone?) and we never have a complete picture of all our interactions.
We can be residents, citizens, customers, clients, patients, victims, criminals, volunteers and donors to name just a few, and we can be all of those things simultaneously. In some cases, lives are at stake. If we could understand more about our interactions with the state then we’d become better citizens – more informed people can take better decisions and maybe even provide for themselves, easing pressure on an already burdened system.
I nearly typed ‘broken system’ then because just the thought of introducing the idea of VRM to the public sector is not for the fainthearted. There are lots of hurdles, from the extreme risk aversion (AKA ‘blame aversion’) of officials (‘what if no one shares their data with us????!!’) through to worries about digital inclusion (‘we shouldn’t adopt new ways of engaging digitally when there are still some poor/old/disabled people who don’t have computers or broadband’).
There is also the difficulty of going too fast. I know – fast isn’t usually the problem with government. But I’m very nervous about the rush to ‘scale’ VRM before any tools have been properly built or adopted. We had some debate at the VRM Hub session about how you could authenticate your bits and bobs like your passport, birth certificate, driving licence and soforth in order to make it easier to transact with the government.
While it’s obvious we will need a way to do this, I think it’s too soon to start trying to invent those ways now. I’m more interested in people being able to tell their local council their preferences, ideas, suggestions, needs and views and for the council to really listen to what people are saying and then design services accordingly. Maybe once the state is used to interacting with citizens on their own terms we will start to see entirely new ways of transacting, and only then will we be ready to design solutions to help this more balanced relationship to scale.
While there are undoubtedly challenges to bringing VRM tools to bear on the state, there are also some open doors. I think VRM will save state institutions money – possibly through having less of a need to store data (since we will be the source of our data); probably through deleting many of the pointless consultation teams that exist throughout local authorities and departments; but definitely through more accurate service design.
Another opportunity is the increasing acceptance that the government might actually need to have a relationship of sorts with its citizens – most recently expressed through the delightful ‘duty to involve‘ placed upon councils, which makes talking to people a legal requirement. I tend to think that if you have to rely on a law to make that happen then you’ve already lost the battle, but at least it’s bringing questions of how best to talk to people to the fore – make way for social media and of course, VRM. And with faith in political institutions at an all time low, there’s never been a better opportunity to introduce a radical re-think of the relationship between people and state.
If you’re interested in VRM and want to find out more, you should totally come along to the next VRM Hub meeting in June. They usually happen on the last Thursday of the month in central London, and you will find details and sign-up here nearer the time.