The improvement in technologies, the rise of smartphones, and anytime, anywhere access to information can help to revolutionise public services, make them more accessible, affordable, and simplistic, but it must meet the needs of the public it serves.
As Beth Simone Noveck, the former aide to Barack Obama, said: “What business do you know, what other sector of the economy, and especially one as big as the public sector, that doesn’t seek to reinvent its business model on a regular basis?”
Public services must reinvent and remodel themselves to deal with all challenges, especially future ones. One of the biggest future challenges is demographic bulges, the most notable being an ageing population. Over the next 20 years the population aged 65-84 will rise by 39%, and those over 85 by 106%. Due to an increased fiscal burden and a lengthy period of austerity under the Conservatives, the UK currently finds itself without the immediate capacity to deal with this, and services such as the NHS are now reaching breaking point.
It’s also not just healthcare. In 2016, there were an estimated 308 people of a pensionable age for every 1,000 people of a working age. By 2037, this is projected to increase to 365 people. An ageing population also means more bus passes, winter fuel allowances, and bereavement benefits. So how does the UK address this demographic bulge in terms of public services?
Of course, we need to be investing in technologies and innovations to improve our public services, but we must also think about how this is connected to the demographic bulge. The improvement in technologies, the rise of smartphones, and anytime, anywhere access to information can help to revolutionise public services, make them more accessible, affordable, and simplistic, but it must meet the needs of the public it serves.
Citizens expect governments and public services to understand their needs, their lives, and their habits, and investing in technology can help achieve this. By 2020 we could have e-prescriptions, online GP consultations, online travel tickets, and further incorporation of m-government. However, the demographic most in need of these services tend to avoid new technology, and may also have health issues that hinder use, so how do we meet their needs?
Technology can help older people to feel more connected, help them deal with loneliness, and they can also continue to learn new skills. But the technology must be made to work for them and their lives. It’s important to help them gain a basic familiarity with mass consumer technologies, and make sure they can get used to new technology as early as possible to impact their future usage levels. Studies show that older people work better with touch screens on devices such as iPads, jargon free language, and clear instruction guides.
An idea would be to set up classes to acquaint older people with these technologies, allowing them to meet others in the same situation. Due to rising life expectancy and increasingly complex family structures, the number of people living on their own is set to sky rocket, and these classes would be a great opportunity to help them get out and about and meeting new people. This can then help them in other aspects of their lives, from ordering food shopping, connecting with family and friends, exercise, and find new hobbies.
Michael Wake is a Young Fabians member