Can marketing help bridge the public sector technology divide?

Founding Partner at Third City, writing about how brands are coping in the social age.

The technology revolution might be underway, but it has yet to reach parts of the public sector.

Most hospital consultants still make notes by hand, with appointments delayed when a batch of papers is left in the wrong department. In schools, clerks of governors are paid to sit in meetings for hours to compile and circulate reams of paper that are rarely read. In the court system physical records are still moved from town to town in vans.

These examples come from my own experience and they relate only to the collection and transfer of information. Consider the myriad potential uses of technology, for treatment or diagnosis in health to classroom learning in education and you begin to see the chasm that exists between those driving the technological revolution in Shoreditch or Silicon Valley and the public services that could benefit from it.

That’s not to say that the public sector doesn’t have its innovators or that all private companies set a shining example. Local authorities and CCGs are using technology to do more with less money, while major multinationals are hamstrung by bureaucratic structures that mean innovation is something talked about in meetings but rarely seen.

Nevertheless, our public sector does create powerful barriers to innovation. Complex institutional structures and a near pathological obsession with risk are the understandable by-products of public accountability, but they do need to be challenged. This is where the marketing industry, particularly agencies with clients across private and public sectors, can play a role.

Let’s look at my earlier example, NHS records. A number of high profile failed IT projects have created a nervousness about overhauling the system while companies like Google and Evernote create ever more intuitive ways to capture and search information. Agencies working with tech giants should be encouraging them to offer their services to the public sector at a favourable rate. What better way to demonstrate a social purpose than to have one? Yes, collaboration entails risk, but the NHS should start small, allowing individual hospitals or GPs to trial new approaches and prove they can be effective.

More profoundly, marketing and in particular PR can play a role in alleviating the NHS funding crisis by helping to reduce demand for unnecessary treatments through better public health and joined-up care. This is primarily a problem of attitudes and behaviour; natural territory for us. Many private companies and charities have an interest in promoting public health, so why not give them the opportunity to bid for public money in order to do so? A PR firm could help, say, a health insurer or single-issue charity to seek out opportunities for co-funded projects, using new platforms like Facebook to drive behaviour change.

In education, we see strong institutional barriers to the uptake of new technology. Edtech innovators like Utah’s Instructure have developed technologies that enable parents to play a much greater role in their child’s education beyond the classroom, but archaic procurement structures mean that take-up is painfully slow. The DfE should be giving schools an incentive to innovate by allowing them to trial new technology and provide evidence that it improves learning. We can play a role in encouraging educationalists to see technology as an aid rather than a threat to teaching.

These are just two examples, but new technology should be used to make every public service, from justice to defence, more effective. The debate about public services is so often framed as being solely about funding, but innovators are turning economic assumptions on their heads in the private sector. The taxpayer should also benefit from their ingenuity.

Mark Lowe is co-founder at Third City

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