The Covid-19 coronavirus crisis is accelerating the pace of digital transformation among companies of all shapes and sizes, and the public sector is no exception, as decision-makers rally to find digital solutions to meet fast-changing requirements despite underlying legacy challenges.
While the immediate focus is to limit the human, social and economic loss, operating in the “new normal” will mean extra pressure on IT in the months to come. Public sector bodies need to use digital channels to inform and serve citizens, while at the same time, many functions have gone all-digital during the coronavirus outbreak, increasing demand for efficient back-end systems.
The pandemic has exposed the need to improve technology efficiency for the continuity of government. Computer Weekly spoke to specialists operating in the public sector to gain an overall view of the key trends and hurdles facing buyers as the crisis unfolds.
Increasing digital interactions
The need to create a lean and efficient government, combined with the requirements around embracing new responsibilities and improving citizen services online, means attention diverted to digital channels will significantly increase in the coming months.
Adoption rates of public-facing digital services in the UK had been growing consistently well before the pandemic. According to numbers from the Institute for Government, there has been a 350% increase in unique interactions with Gov.uk since 2014, driven by citizen demand, as well as user-centric design and improved responsiveness.
The coronavirus pandemic has taken the provision of digital services to a new level, with offerings launched for services ranging from welfare and public safety to healthcare. Digital services provided by the NHS have seen increased use during the outbreak – for example, use of the NHS App, which provides functionality such as ordering repeat prescriptions, grew by 111% in March.
Historically, the development of public services has had to consider digital and non-digital channels, but Covid-19 means the latter is rapidly taking a backseat, according to Dnyanesh Kale, advisory director at consultancy firm 6point6. “Paper-based solutions and face-to-face services will be an exception, but there is accelerated demand for digitised services that can be accessed remotely,” he says.
As well as increasing adoption of digital services, there will be a renewed interest in automation in 2020 and beyond, according to Mick Halliday, chief digital officer, UK public sector, at Capgemini. This will happen through robotic process automation (RPA), artificial intelligence (AI) and big data.
“Dynamic purchasing systems focusing on these areas will be created during 2020 to assist government buyers in the procurement of these services, combined with significant investment in AI,” he says.
Key areas of adoption will likely focus on the creation of bot-assisted omni-channel experiences, according to Halliday. This will be aimed at providing more seamless integration across digital and call centre channels, and AI-assisted risk analysis and profiling of interactions, such as automating applications and renewals while isolating exceptions for human intervention.
New ways of working
As well as citizen-to-government engagement, the way in which public servants interact within the departments where they work will also see a significant shift as a result of the current work-from-home requirements. However, there is a learning curve for buyers, and the Crown Commercial Service is providing advice around the options available for remote working arrangements.
Many public sector agencies which put a premium on traditional business practices, from colocated workspaces to printed binders, are quickly becoming familiar with video conferencing and collaboration tools (see Croydon Council case study), says Dan Roche, vice-president and public sector lead at digital transformation firm Publicis Sapient.
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“The public sector, especially those [departments] particularly resistant to change, will be pushed by this, especially when or if staff are called back to work someday having gotten used to such practices,” he argues.
After Covid-19, an increased appetite for dispersed team delivery within agile projects and IT services in general is to be expected given the positive results so far, according to Capgemini’s Halliday.
“Early indicators suggest that delivery velocity and efficiency in digital agile projects has improved during the lockdown period through innovative adoption of collaboration technologies and processes,” he points out.
The cloud opportunity
Given the increase in online interactions, digital transformation in government is no longer about simply innovating, but managing scale, operational efficiency and ensuring taxpayer value for money, while user expectations, technologies and suppliers’ services are rapidly shifting.
"The ability of government to continue to deliver high-quality services in times of change depends on its ability to dynamically respond to changing circumstances, legislation, policy and risk,” says Halliday.
“The breadth, scale and nature of the technology that underpins public service delivery provides both enormous opportunities and significant challenges,” he adds.
In the context of the coronavirus crisis, cloud-based software as a service (SaaS) becomes crucial in ensuring demands for scalability and reduced cost, as well as simpler integration of digital services, automation, efficiency and improved interactions.
Between late 2019 and early 2020, government departments seemed more willing to adopt cloud SaaS offerings, according to Halliday. This, the expert says, is an “intelligent refinement”, a departure from the build-your-own mindset to a new approach driven by factors such as total cost of ownership (TCO) awareness and pressure for faster time-to-market.
On the other hand, there is a “new realism” in the public sector when it comes to costs and benefits, according to Proteus Duxbury, transformation expert at PA Consulting. “We are seeing a tightening of financial controls as unexpected and hidden charges start to rack up,” he says.
While government buyers jumped into cloud options, their lack of sophistication around getting value for money meant most realised that cloud-first didn’t always mean cheaper, according to Duxbury. The expert cites the example of the need for disaster recovery, dedicated links and bandwidth in and out for movement of data, which bring new costs.
While there is still a lot to learn, Duxbury predicts that cash-strapped public sector buyers will ramp up their use of cloud, with approaches such as disaster recovery as a service (DRaaS) becoming increasingly common, as well as containerisation, DevOps and serverless computing.
The issue of legacy
Cloud is championed by the Government Digital Service (GDS) as a key pillar of digital transformation, and that is well understood by decision-makers, but one of the major hurdles is legacy, as organisations struggle to phase out old systems that are core to their operations, despite incrementally moving towards digital.
While progress has been made around transformation in government, the challenge is around end-to-end digitisation, as much of it has been taking place at the front end, according to Neal Craig, UK public sector digital lead at PA Consulting.
“Remediation, refactoring and replacement has moved ahead in some areas, but the really transformative aspects of technology from an operations and net costs perspective are only now being delivered,” says Craig.
The elimination of ageing technology in government has been discussed often. A Science and Technology Committee inquiry into digital government in March 2019 concluded that standards, as well as additional funding, were required to handle legacy IT in the public sector.
According to Craig, the increased digital demands in the wake of Covid-19 will require a pragmatic approach to addressing government legacy. “The scale of the challenge, and what are likely to be constrained public finances in the future, will make it vital to have a clear view of the return on investment so priorities can be set,” he says.
Case study: Croydon Council
According to Neil Williams, chief digital officer (CDO) at Croydon Council and one of the pioneers behind the Gov.uk platform, significant progress has been made around digitisation at the local authority as a result of the coronavirus crisis.
“It is hard to talk about silver linings without feeling disrespectful to those who’ve lost loved ones, but it’s clear there are many benefits from the enforced rapid adoption of digital tools and remote working,” he says.
One of the projects fast-tracked by the council during Covid-19 is the roll-out of Microsoft Teams to approximately 4,000 staff. According to Williams, the plan was to introduce the system in a staged way across a few months, scaling up support and training as the implementation progressed, but plans had to change quickly.
“We compressed [the roll-out] to a week, and it’s been phenomenal to see the speed at which the whole organisation has taken a massive leap forward in their adoption of these kinds of tools, and of best practices for collaborating and communicating, and the cultural impact it has on teamwork, pace of delivery and sharing knowledge more openly,” the CDO notes.
Similarly, Croydon Council has had to deliver rapid changes to its telephony, website and online services, including building new systems for business grants, council tax relief and internal situation reporting.
“Having just invested in a new low-code platform, we were in a good position to move fast on this and build apps in days, that would otherwise have taken us months,” says Williams, referring to the Capterra Liberty Create development platform the council had introduced just before the crisis.
“Quite simply, we have learnt some new tricks as an organisation – and we don't want to go back to how we were before this crisis.”