It is no secret that the Government and public services organisations have been significantly challenged during the COVID-19 pandemic. Whilst trying to deliver their primary mandate of protecting citizens and providing services to enhance daily life, they have also had to accelerate Digital Transformations, often unplanned, to meet the needs of their staff and citizens.
Local Public Sector organisations have found themselves on the front-line of these unplanned Digital Transformations whilst trying to manage their response to the pandemic. However, whilst this has been highly disruptive for many, it also presents significant opportunity.
As many employees are working from home, it is inevitable that they will focus on the work that needs to get done. This will expose the business processes (and therefore, the applications and interfaces) that are either redundant or simply not utilised. CIOs and Heads of IT have an excellent opportunity to optimise operational and support costs by rationalising such applications and offset some of the inevitable budgetary cost reductions that will happen in a post COVID-19 recovery. This also has an added advantage of reducing technical debt which often plagues this sector.
To extend this opportunity further, these digital transformations can be used to bring finance, operations and technology colleagues together within the organisation to form a Technology Business Management office that will allow a top down view on the true economics and efficiency of technology supporting citizen outcomes. Again, this approach will draw out the opportunities to optimise spend whilst retaining the level of service mandated for the citizen.
Many citizens have been forced to do their own adaptations of using more online services in their daily lives. Social distancing and lockdown measures has caused the rapid uptake of digital tools to support remote working and self-serve. It is natural that as the citizen gets more used to this way of engaging services, they will expect that their Local Public Services to be able to deliver many, if not all, services digitally.
This has meant that technology opportunities such as Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and the use of Machine Learning (ML) and even Artificial Intelligence (AI) are certainly on the table and worthy of serious consideration for IT Leaders to maintain and develop services with a reduced number of available staff.
More accessible technologies such as cloud can, and are, being accelerated to address this issue. That being said, simply attempting to run existing on-premises applications and systems on Cloud will deliver a small fraction of the benefits, the key to unlocking true value lies in transforming to re-factoring, re-engineering or replacing these with cloud-native systems.
Inevitably, there are trade-offs to be able to provide more digital services to meet citizen demand which will be driven by available budgets against medium or longer term benefits, but undeniably the opportunity exists to be taken by the more far-sighted.
Another positive that has come from the pandemic is the lengthy procurement processes, typical of the public sector, have been shoved aside to deliver effect. It will be interesting to see how much the pendulum will swing back as a level of “normality” is restored. The balance between highly scrutinised procurement processes to protect the public purse against the delivery of effect and benefit will be tested again and it is likely that the tolerance for drawn out procedures to be lower in future.
To elaborate this point further, the need for more co-ordinated effort between various agencies and organisation in the Local Public Sector has never been greater. It is also most prevalent in areas where there have been overlaps of services leading to “turf wars”. With the UK economy now formally in recession, and the open dialogue from the current Government forewarning of austerity measures that will make the previous decade look quite light in comparison – it will not be a choice for many, but a necessity, to share services. As such, procurement processes will have to mature rapidly to adapt to this new reality.
The point about collaboration between organisations also presents opportunity to the more mature IT departments who will be able to offer a shared service model with other agencies and peer organisations. The key advantage is to reduce operating costs per head both for their own organisation and for those they collaborate with.
This opportunity is not exclusive to local public sector IT departments either. Those technology partners that are willing to be empathetic and engage in co-investment will reap longer term benefits (and revenue retention) by helping form eco-systems to service this need. By driving through these critical digital transformations and enabling the efficiencies through business process rationalisation, apps rationalisation and cost controls – they can emerge ahead of their competition.
However, this demands a level of trust and level of collaboration from all sides that has been rarely seen in such ventures to date. This radical shift in mentality and approach would not be likely under normal conditions, but the pandemic may well be the catalyst to enable this to happen.
Fundamentally, there is now a compelling case that Local Public Sector bodies have a responsibility, even a duty, to accept that they must radically change the traditional approach to transformation and development of technology.
For many, there will be little choice, but that does not address the cultural challenges associated with such a change. The key is in the wider acceptance that digital transformation is the key driver of delivering better services and making better use of public funds.
For the future, themes such as user-centric design, responsiveness and automation will need to enter into common taxonomy alongside more agile and DevOps-centric delivery models. This is, and will be, highly disruptive, but one that can provide lasting and positive change in the Local Public Sector. This demands a strong balance of pragmatism against what will be, inevitably, limited available budgets.
The key measurement will be in the volume in change in this sector over the next 18 months to adapt and adopt to this new reality. It will also be measured by the appetite to invest by ecosystem partners to support the digital transformations in this space in order to maintain the pace of change. The key will be how to maximise what available funds that remain before they will be inevitably cut.