Digital public services: cross-civil society collaboration during the COVID19 crisis

08 April 2020

This is a quick blog post to write up some ideas from a conversation between Dan Barrett and Richard Pope about how civil society organisations can better work together on data.

To respond to the COVID19 crisis, dedicated teams across central, local and devolved governments are developing new services and making changes to existing ones, all at great speed. This includes everything from transactional services like the NHS’s “Get an isolation note” service, to complex federated efforts like “Get coronavirus support as a clinically extremely vulnerable person”. Shortly it could include contact-tracing services that raise significant civil liberties and equality issues. Existing services, such as Universal Credit, are coming under new pressure and will need to adapt.

Service design at speed necessitates advocacy and support at speed. Charities and support organisations will need to change their work as the needs of the public change. This will only be possible if civil society has a good, collective, understanding of these changes, share what they are learning from users of those services, and understand what other organisations are by way of offering help. In short, there is a need for better data.

There are no doubt many opportunities for this, this blog post is a way of testing people’s appetite and suggesting three places to start.

1. Documenting new government services

Civil society organisations can provide an important role in documenting how new government and NHS services are designed and function. Collaboratively documenting what services have been created and how they work (aka ‘service teardowns’) could prove a useful tool for those advocating for policy changes. This could be particularly important for any new services that have civil liberties or equality implications, and for changes to existing critical services such as Universal Credit.

2. Shared early warning systems

The new circumstances created by COVID19 and new public services will be creating new issues for the public and new demands on public services. It is critical that this knowledge is not locked within a single organisation, but is available across the sector. An open approach like this could help to build more consistent language for issues over time, enabling collaboration. A shared early warning system could take various forms - anything from a weekly zoom call to a Google Form. The important thing is that someone is acting in a convening function to ensure issues are shared.

3. Improving the discovery of support services

As charities and support groups start to offer new support services or expand existing ones, there is an opportunity to capture this as structured georeferenced data. Services data could aid triaging between organisations, but also be surfaced on websites like GOV.UK and Citizens Advice.

What other opportunities are there for charities and support groups to work together on datasets during the COVID19 crisis?