Digital Transformation Challenges in the Public Sector from 2021 

Over the past decade, all public services have faced digital transformation challenges and developed associated programs. Most of these initiatives have had to be driven by money – the need for efficiency, productivity, and income generation, in response to increased financial pressures and a decade of austerity. 

There has been notable innovation as well, led by citizen need and technological opportunity, although until recently projects to remodel customer services for digital delivery were in a minority. Most examples of digital innovation at the front line of service delivery have in the adoption of new IT possibilities, such as harnessing AI in the customer contact centre, or switching on functionality in CRM systems, with greater automation and self-service.

Many digital transformation projects had also concentrated on automating traditional methods of service delivery rather than fundamentally changing the design of services to reflect changing customer preferences or new technology possibilities. 

A piecemeal approach to improving business processes in a particular part of the organization or optimizing individual systems (such as cloud models recommended by suppliers) also limited the scale of digital transformation and led to islands of best practice. Nowhere is this truer than in health services, where wholesale digital projects have usually failed spectacularly. 

As a result, despite strong digital progress in many public service organizations, until the COVID pandemic there was often too much focus on technology instead of digital transformation, or narrow change led by a strong and visionary digital leaders in specific service areas. One of the effects of the pandemic, in accelerating digital adoption, has been a change in emphasis towards a ‘whole organization’ approach. 

We can now see a new digital landscape emerging for the public sector, with five seismic changes in digital transformation priorities which will dominate plans and service strategies for the next few years:

  1. Collaboration platforms: A digital basis for integrated services, secure and flexible sharing of data and co-locating team around digital outcomes.
  2. Re-focusing on citizen preferences: repositioning digital priorities and design principles to better reflect preferences as well as needs will drive efficiency, innovation, inclusion and diversity.
  3. A transitioned workforce: Employee expectations have shifted over the last 12 months. It’s become a recruitment and retention issue to ensure digital practice enables flexible and productive working.
  4. Priority services re-engineered: This is about applying digital potential to solve the more intractable challenges facing public services, rather than chasing efficiency alone.


Building Modern Collaboration Platforms

Collaboration between public services is more than sharing ideas and undertaking some joint projects. The COVID pandemic has shown the value of integration and join-up across local health, police, councils and community services in particular. 

Looking ahead, there will be deeper integration of services, overcoming the past barriers of fragmented budgets, local politics, vested interests and narrow ‘silo-ed’ perspectives that have obstructed so many shared service initiatives in the public sector, often to the detriment of the service user. 

An obvious example is health and social care, join up in integrated care systems where a silo of budgets, governance, data and systems have limited change possibilities. Integrated digital design could free up scarce resources in hospitals by simplifying and joining together admission and discharge processes, with available service capacity data shared. 

There are many more less visible examples where a more fluid integration of support and service components would bring significant benefits to public service users, based on collaboration platforms designed from the perspective of the user, not the provider. 

Sharing data and systems on public cloud platforms in particular (neutral and efficient) can help to form the basis of cross-service collaboration:

  1. Shared tools: using common systems to solve common problems. This could be basic administrative functions, or shared specialist applications.
  2. Software licenses: ensuring all software can be shared across multiple agencies in a single license, with flexibility to adapt and change usage.
  3. Networks and cyber: common standards for access and security, with shared jointly managed infrastructure and shared cyber planning.
  4. Public cloud: using recognized and common cloud platforms provides a neutral and efficient sharing base.
  5. Data: common data standards and principles allow data to be shared, integrated and exploited for better insight, policy and decision-making.


Re-focusing on Citizen Preferences

Everyone’s expectations of public services has changed as a result of COVID. We can all see how services can be better joined up, such as general practitioner (GP) appointments linked automatically to prescription services, or council services delivered without a need to visit the town hall. 

Yet little that has been delivered digitally over the last 12 months is actually revolutionary or technologically innovative; it just feels as though it is. This is because it has challenged previously outdated thinking about what was actually possible, desirable or acceptable in terms of IT risk and capability, as well as citizens needs and preferences. 

The last 12 months has shown that many of fears about digital disenfranchisement and exclusion have proved to be wrong, and that often people have become less excluded as a result of digital delivery than they were previously. There is now a new group of digitally excluded individuals who need to be helped because of the rapid and wholesale move to digital delivery, or because of some poorly designed services delivered in haste. 

This implies several new digital priorities for public services. In particular there must be a re focusing on citizen preferences, not just on their needs. Given the experience over the last 12 months, are citizens ready for deeper digital adoption? Which of the new digital services recently are welcomed by the public, and which need fine tuning or stabilization? 

This requires an ongoing dialogue with the public, balancing technological opportunity, cost and value, with ‘needs and preferences’ in how services are designed and delivered, with greater flexibility to cater for different and changing needs reflecting personal circumstances. 

Public tolerance of poor digital design has waned. Whilst they may welcome new digital methods that have previously been resisted, the public will also demand change if the services do not meet their expectations, and ‘digital’ will become a local political priority. This will demand a reprioritization of the digital transformation strategy:

  1. Stabilizing digital method: ensuring the digital solutions that have been put in place quickly over the last 12 months are resilient, secure and form part of a coherent digital architecture.
  2. Addressing new digital exclusion: whilst many people have become less digitally excluded, perhaps through trialing new technologies or support from family and friends, others have now become more excluded because of the growing dependency on digital methods.
  3. Digital reprioritization: With the accelerated digital roadmap in most organizations, and a wider more holistic approach to technology adoption, there is a need to reassess digital strategies and priorities.


A Transformed Workforce

The so-called ‘generation Y’ of 24 to 40 year old do not want to be employed by organizations that cannot offer mobile and flexible working, with modern tools that support interaction and productivity on the move or at home. Employees have experienced the benefit of greater flexibility in their work, balancing home and work commitments in ways that were previously resisted by some organizations. 

That is not to suggest that there will be no return to the office after the pandemic is over, but that the whole basis of work and the working day will change. I’m looking ahead, there will be a mix of time spent on local hubs, at home, travelling and in redesigned office workspace. Avoiding the rush hour and a stressful or long daily commute, whilst balancing work and family commitments, will be expected and has been shown to be possible. 

This is much more than using tools such as videoconferencing and secure remote intranet connectivity. It is about redesigning work itself in ways that empower employees and segment activity, building team cohesion, strong communication channels and efficient delivery. 

There will be a whole range of new tools to support working across buildings, teams and organizations, and creating new ways in which scarce skills can be acquired through learning and acquisition. This will include new models for partnerships and shared services, with both public and private sector organizations. 

HR will need to lead on organizational design to define, drive and track new cultures and behaviors that support new digital models of delivery, replacing traditional metrics and methods of a pre-digital age.

New work model:

  1. Workplace design and hubs
  2. Changed culture and behaviors
  3. Employee support and consultation
  4. Changed employee contracts
  5. New tools for collaboration
  6. Digital skills and leadership
  7. Model of partnership
  8. Workflow design remodeled


Priority Service Re-engineered

Digital transformation cannot be taken in isolation. There now needs to be a move away from isolated digital programs towards a whole-organization approach – as has been necessary in response to COVID-19. 

This includes a review of the optimization of technology adoption within individual services themselves, underpinned by a common digital architecture with shared digital components wherever possible across each public service and beyond. 

It will often also require digital solutions that can span multiple organizations, freeing data from legacy, proprietary or home-grown systems, avoiding the problem of optimizing digital solutions based on individual IT supplier offerings or proprietary standards. 

This is particularly true for local public services, such as those run by councils, which are typically ‘relational’ in construct, and not ‘standalone’ – linking together different services and systems, often held in different organizations, to improve public service outcomes. 

A digital transformation priority on relational services will be the basis for solving some of the more complex problems facing public service organizations, and the foundation for adoption of integrated IOT and artificial intelligence technologies, as well as data analytics tools. 

There are numerous examples of these complex and often intractable problems, but the most common ones requiring a digital solution looking ahead are:

  • Citizens involved in co-designing services and civic planning.
  • Supporting troubled families who have complex needs
  • Addressing crime and the causes of crime, including the safety of vulnerable people
  • Prioritizing public health, wellbeing and health and social care integration.
  • Dealing with pressures on civic infrastructure and on the wider environment.


Reshaped IT Delivery 

It is a while since the IT department in most public service organizations has undergone fundamental change. The advent of cloud computing, outsourcing models and the pressure of austerity over the last decade created change, but some of the IT models in place today now need reviewing. 

In particular, IT outsourcing has been far from successful, the hybrid model of ‘on premise’ and ‘public cloud’ often feels like unfinished business, and the demand is growing for greater responsiveness in IT services to digital priorities. This, coupled with the need to address legacy IT where it is still holding back digital transformation, creates a perfect storm for change. 

Also, the advent of digital transformation a decade ago created an artificial separation between IT operation and digital programs, typically driven by either a mistrust in IT leadership to have the capability or capacity to lead wider organizational change, or because some CIOs tended to operate as traditional IT managers (‘Scotty in the engine room’, not ‘Kirk on the bridge’, to use a Star Trek analogy). 

This separation must be removed in order to close the gap between the potential of technology and the transformational needs of digital delivery. The key transformation pressures on IT delivery which need to be reflected in a revised IT plan for the coming years ahead include the following 6 main areas for It leadership:

IT fit for a digital future

  1. Establishing models of working with IT providers and the in-house team fir for the future
  2. Redefining IT strategy policies, and the wider relationship between technology delivery and public service outcomes
  3. Removing legacy that is holding back service modernization or is inefficient
  4. Ensuring that collaboration platforms and tools are secure and responsive
  5. Integrating cloud models and prioritizing public cloud delivery
  6. Optimizing IT infrastructure for performance, flexibility and security

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In Summary…. 

The five digital transformation trends identified in this report are not new in themselves, but the emphasis is different and have emerged primarily because of the impact of the global pandemic. Public services are now operating very differently and much of this will continue, with citizens embracing new ways of accessing services. 

IT leaders need to position themselves in the forefront of a new digital agenda, and those not able to deliver a more joined up IT service aligned with corporate ambition and challenges, will struggle. Therefore, whilst there are some exciting times ahead for technology leaders in the public sector, it won’t all be easy. 

Money will be tighter, the public expectation of the ‘reach and the range’ of digital services has grown, and whilst demands for IT investment will increase, this will place CIOs under increasing pressure to prove their value and the return on investment from IT spend. 

CIOs should concentrate on the five emerging digital transformation priorities identified in this report in order to be ready for these pressures and able to respond over the next 24 months. 

This will help not only their own credibility but also the reputation of technology to support digital change – innovation by using IT, not just delivering innovative technology.


About the Author 

Jos Creese is an independent digital consultant, researcher and analyst. He is a strategic client advisor for Advice Cloud (supporting Freshworks), helping SMEs in particular to position their products and services to be of greatest value for the public sector. Since founding CCL in 2015, after 30 years as a public sector CIO, he has helped over 200 public and private organizations on their digital journey, including on customer service strategies for large public bodies. He is also a non-exec director for the Department for International Trade and Hampshire Hospitals Foundation Trust, as well as chairing the Open University Industrial Advisory Board for the School of Computing. About Advice Cloud Advice Cloud are public sector procurement specialists and G Cloud consultants. Services include , assisting both public and private organizations in buying and selling services that include IT, Cloud, Business Process Outsourcing (BPO), digital and professional services. Advisory services include business surgeries, customized client workshops and a range of specialist consultancy support, tailored to help clients to position their products and solutions optimally for the public sector’s needs and challenges. 

About Freshworks 

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