Thomas Hogg is Head of Product Development at MindSauce and author of Gaining Traction: The Beginner’s Guide to Product Management.
Historically, when the Government wanted to affect change in society, they would have to both design a policy and use their army of civil servants to implement and maintain it.
Schools, healthcare, social care – to reach every part of society and not just the privileged, the Government had to build entire organisations to make them work. As conservatives, we know that the Government often isn’t very effective at this.
The Opposite of a Sugar Tax
Let’s look at one example. If a government wanted to change the food people eat, how would they do it? They could use a sugar tax or a ban. They could set up a healthy food awareness campaign. They could regulate supermarkets, restaurants and schools, and set up a quango to inspect them.
This is how a conventional government would think – very much inside-the-box thinking. Today, however, there are many other options.
Imagine, for example, that every family up and down the country had a personal food shopper – let’s call him Fred. Fred buys and delivers the right quantities, inside your budget, of healthy food your family like. After your meals, Fred writes down the leftovers and their use-by dates. He suggests recipes which use up the leftover ingredients and notifies you when they need eating.
Since Fred organises everything, you can afford healthy food, get back hours you used to spend in the supermarket each week, use up your leftovers, and feel better because you have more money and you’re eating more healthily.
Apps have already been developed that can do this. Based on figures from the charity Love Food Hate Waste and the Money Advice Service, families can save on average at least £900 a year – that’s in leftover usage, freezing food and avoiding distractions in the supermarket. It doesn’t include the savings from proper meal planning, for example.
If the Government turned this app into a policy, it wouldn’t cost much to make an impact. The app doesn’t have to be developed by civil servants, they can just tap into the work others have already done.
Would it help every family? No. Would it reach everyone who needed help? No. But if it helped just ten per cent of the most disadvantaged children, surely it would be a success? Public Health England estimates the cost of poor lifestyle choices at £11 billion per year – if this policy helped save five per cent of that, it would be worth it.
The Opportunities in Healthcare
Just this week, a success of this nature has happened. If you’ve been on Facebook recently or seen the front page of The Times, you may have noticed an ad like this one:
An app developed by a private company, Babylon Health, is being used by the NHS to save patients hours in the waiting room and get healthcare when they need it.
Recognising symptoms earlier can save lives and the NHS thousands of pounds in healthcare costs. The policy has cost the NHS much less than if they had set this up themselves – Babylon had already set up a similar app for their private clients. The NHS didn’t need to pay the developers or spend months getting the product right.
In fact, this type of partnership is a match made in heaven in other parts of the NHS and across Government policy too. Lantum is a startup that can save the NHS millions by connecting doctors and empty shifts in hospitals and GP practices. Thriva.co lets customers do their own blood tests, with results in 48 hours and a personalised report from a GP.
None of these initiatives are silver bullets. The NHS still has fundamental challenges that these initiatives can’t solve, but each has the potential to help.
A Transformation In Education
Perhaps the most exciting development is in education. Anyone with a smartphone, no matter how little money or time you have, can learn a language today. Ten minutes a day with the DuoLingo app, in the underground, in a lunch break or on the train is all it takes. Even five years ago, that was much less accessible.
A few years ago, an online programme of some of the top universities in the US was launched called edX. Anyone can now learn the basics of computer programming in Python for free with MIT professors. For £20 a month, anyone can learn the basics of graphic design with LinkedIn Learning.
Bringing this into the classroom is incredibly easy. In 2013, I travelled to the small town of Joensuu in Finland to understand more about their internationally-acclaimed education system. iPads were abundant in the classroom and teachers were sometimes more like guides for the children in their own learning journeys.
Every child learns differently – there’s no one-size-fits-all teaching method – but that’s exactly why technology in education is exciting. Each child can learn in the way that works best for them. Theoretically, it frees up the teacher to offer more individualised help.
Energy, Infrastructure and Expertise
Other policy areas have great potential too. Energy smart meters, Tesla’s Solar Roof and the Powerwall battery can save money and help the environment. Hyperloop is a faster and more energy-efficient alternative to HS2 – in fact, the company already plans a London-Edinburgh route. To support that effort rather than to duplicate it with HS2 could produce a better result.
MindSauce (full disclosure: I’m involved) can connect Government departments to experts in science, technology, education and engineering whenever they need them, wherever they are in the world, via video link for more effective policy-making and implementation (translation: fewer last minute panics that a policy doesn’t work for a reason they didn’t think of).
None of these possibilities were available to the Government five or ten years ago. For a Government which lacks money, these new possibilities should be a godsend. They can still change people’s lives dramatically for the better with schemes that cost a fraction of traditional policies. They don’t need to invade people’s liberties with a sugar tax or a ban.
Instead, they can take advantage of the efforts of private companies to implement newly available solutions to age-old problems. The innovation’s out there; the Government just needs to embrace it.