Big brother at risk of su-veillance (no "r")

“Su-veillance” is when residents of all ages (teenagers to silver surfers) use mobile phones et al to record their dealings with “authority” and post the results on youtube: customer feedback in action – whether you want it or not.

The record of the third of the EURIM transformational government dialogues is currently being edited but the meeting yesterday was told of the serious risks now being run by organisations which do not make it easier for residents or customers to show problems direct to empowered front line staff, than to post complaints on a social networking site.

Enabling residents to post photos on street problems direct to a website (using the inbuilt GPS facility to pinpoint the location) and giving council staff the GPS equipment to go straight there, and post the clean-up photo alongside the complaint, has produced dramatic results in both Lewisham and Oldham. Although in 2006 there had been a fear that the sharp increase in “notifications” would overwhelm Lewisham’s staff – they then turned the corner this year – with a 50% drop (however measured) in graffiti and reductions in overtime that more than cover the cost of system, equipment and increased and improved service. More-over the improvement in morale among those who “joined a public service in order to serve the public”, had been as marked as the increased satisfaction of the residents.

There was much discussion over the politics of implementation, for example using the words “notification” and “intelligence” rather than “report” – so as not to blow apart council or police targets. There were interesting discussions as to how far such approaches could be used for more complex services and how to reduce the risk that on-line forums would be dominated by unrepresentative minorities in the same way as so many other “community” groups. The answers included making it much esier for ordinary people to participate and giving them the incentive and confidence to do so – by demonstrating action on their concerns.

For those in minority communities at risk of violence from their extended families (perhaps after a tip-off from a cousin working for the Council or DWP) the creation of confidence may well entail levels of people (not just technology) security unknown outside the intelligence services and some of the childrens charities and similar voluntary organisations. The experience of groups like Womenspeak and the more recent Kidspeak show, however, that it can be done relatively cheaply and easily, but only within rings of trust.

Once again the parliamentarians on the panel were able to take holistic views of issues that are complicated largely by the pressure on middle management to shoe-horn services into the silos created by Lloyd George in 1918 (see my posting Lions led by Donkeys) with their tangles of rotting and leaky drainpipes that drip-feed funding to the front-line, via heirarchies designed to manage targets not services. .

In this case the lessons also apply to all large private sector organisations, including may in the ICT industry, for which “customer service” is similarly an oxymoron.