This article is part of our Essential Guide: Essential Guide: Digital transformation in the public sector

Five pillars of public sector IT

Finding better ways for people to collaborate and share information digitally is the challenge government needs to embrace. We look at ways in which this can be achieved

There seems to be a common theme across the public sector – everyone is talking about digital transformation. But for many public sector organisations, streamlining internal processes and connecting them to create a seamless experience for citizens is incredibly complex.  

Then there are the inevitable conversations public sector IT chiefs have over whether to build or buy, and the discussions over the amount of money being invested in critical platforms, some of which are legacy systems that have been entrusted to run operations for many years. 

At the Sprint 19 conference last year, the director general of the Government Digital Service (GDS), Alison Pritchard, outlined five core “pillars” to underpin the vision for how the government will operate digitally by 2030. These are:  

  • Strengthening existing cross-government standards and capabilities on security;  
  • Improving interoperability across government to reduce reliance on outdated systems;  
  • Providing digital identity across government services;  
  • Making data more accessible; 
  • Developing personalised services for citizens. 

Building on the data access pillar, Chris Gledhill, small to medium-sized enterprise (SME) member of TechUK's Central Government Council and CEO of PDMS, suggests the government needs to focus on the development of common standards for transactions and data, which can be shared and used as the basis for innovation.  

Open data and well-designed APIs [application processing interfaces] are a great starting point for transformation,” he says. “To be truly citizen-centric’, services need to reflect the informal support networks that operate in the real world, as well as the individual services provided by specific agencies. Finding better ways for people to collaborate and share information digitally is the challenge government needs to embrace.” 

Such objectives are valid both at a central and a local government level. But now all areas of the public sector are having to cope with the coronavirus pandemic. In March, Socitmthe Society for innovation, technology and modernisation, published the Public sector global technology trends 2020 report.  

At the time, just as the UK began facing the Covid-19 lockdown, the report’s author and Socitm associate director, Jos Creese, said: “In the current climate, all bets are off about what technology trends matter most in the public sector – those that are at the forefront now are supporting mobile and flexible working. 

“All public services are under huge pressure from Covid-19, and some are wishing services had not been so badly cut over the past decade. More importantly, those that are coping best with the need for their workers to function remotely are those that have invested wisely in collaborative technology over recent years and encouraged flexibility in working practices.”  

Creese, who previously worked as a local government CIO, before establishing his own digital consulting business, believes local governments face a unique challenge in transforming successful pilot projects into widespread adoption. In the report, he describes how local authorities need to overcome challenges such as funding, skills, bureaucratic organisation, lack of political vision and “a dearth of strategies”. 

Assess enterprise and small IT providers 

To disseminate the use of new technologies in municipalities, the leading solutions and technology providers focus primarily on the large and prosperous cities and are almost absent in the rest of the local government market. This creates a very unbalanced situation.  

In general, larger public bodies have greater buying power. They can potentially put more time and effort into constructing a contract and monitoring service levels. Even so, there are plenty of examples, both at the central and local government level, where this is done poorly. 

The Socitm report suggests new, innovative business models are needed as small municipalities simply do not have the economies of scale to justify the investment in innovative technologies across a broad range of services. 

“Smaller local government organisations need to merge, or at least establish shared service arrangements, in order to create the critical mass that can justify investments based on sound business cases,” says Creese. This will be challenging. It is not enough, for example, to simply merge technology functions.” 

Along with collaborating, he says smaller public sector organisations should also consider buying best-of-breed applications rather than comprehensive enterprise software product suites. 

“Depending on the organisation’s maturity – some can consume and get value from the major products, but others may not  my recommendation is buy small and be prepared to throw away, he says. 

The challenge with large software suites is that they can determine the way processes work in a public sector organisation. In Creese’s experience, there is a temptation to consume as much of the functionality available in the product suite as possible 

“It is very tempting to use all modules to consolidate all suppliers. But this is not efficient, nor is it sustainable, he says. 

Creese urges public sector IT chiefs to consider what functionality works in their organisation without the need for customisation. But there are times when customisation is needed. “Be savvy with what you customise,” he says. 

Build rather than buy 

If a full product suite is unsuitable, and the best-of-breed alternative is not a good fit for the organisation, it sometimes makes more sense to build an entirely new application than try to adapt an off-the-shelf package.  

Five years ago, as its customer relationship management (CRM) system was reaching end of life, Worcestershire County Council began looking at alternatives.  

“We don’t require traditional CRM. We weren’t worried about collecting unique customer IDs,” says Jo Hilditch, digital delivery team manager at Worcestershire County Council.  

Instead, the council selected the OutSystems low-code environment to enable it to deliver back-end customer service applications and back-office dashboards for managing council services. 

She says the team effectively created mini CRM systems within each council service, which is “much more flexible than a traditional CRM and allowit to deliver more end-to-end service transformation”.  

Each new application could focus on making one back-end process as efficient as possible. For instance, the development team built a new front-end application for Trapeze, the existing school transport system, to enable parents to request school transport for their children and track the progress of their request.  

“The team handles the school transport request in a dashboard and can action it,” says Hilditch. Parents can instantly see what stage their application is at instead of having to call the service centre.” 

She says using a low-code platform meant it was not necessary to hire sought-after software developers, who can be difficult to retain due to the high demand for such skills. “We can employ people with less coding skills, she adds.  

When it began using OutSystems to build new applications, Hilditch says Worcestershire County Council had an apprentice and two graduates on the programming team. 

The team is now organised into three work streams, each with two developers. Hilditch says they build applications for the council using standard templates.  

“There is a lot of core code re-use,” she adds. For instance, code for user management, data retention and payments is re-used again and again across OutSystems-based applications. 

Focus on customer experience  

In February, analyst Forrester reported that government agencies around the globe lag their private sector counterparts in embracing digital transformation to deliver positive customer experience (CX).  

The analyst firm recently looked into the findings of a report about digital services in Australia. According to Forrester, there are plenty of lessons from Australia’s experience of digital services that public sector CIOs should take into account when embarking on digital transformation initiatives.  

One of the key recommendations of the Independent review of the Australian Public Service, published in 2018, is the need to put customers at the heart of service delivery. 

According to Forrester, improving CX encourages customers to comply with an agency’s directives. They also engage with the department proactively and tend to speak well of it, trust it, and forgive its mistakes. 

From an operations perspective, Forrester says improving customer experience also lowers costs. “Agencies with better CX typically spend less, roll out legislation more smoothly and avoid scandals,” write analysts Sam Higgins and Zhi-Ying Barry in Forrester’s To digitally transform, government agencies must start by becoming customer-obsessed reportThis is aided by customers engaging proactively to seek out optional benefits and services, thereby avoiding waste, reducing errors and increasing program uptake.”  

Fix legacy IT and manage contracts 

Creese says the job of a public sector CIO is not sexy and should not be just about doing big change programmes. “Their job as a CIO is to sort the bread and butter, ensuring outsourcing contracts work properly and making sure you don’t build a legacy of exciting technology, he adds. 

Public sector organisations can often find that they are continuing to invest in old applications. Creese believes this is inexcusable as it holds the business back and costs taxpayers a huge amount of money. 

For Creese, the job of any CIO should be to get a handle on the legacy IT problem and work on how to reduce or even eliminate it. 

In doing so, the CIO can work on digital transformation initiatives, built on a modern foundation that can deliver digitally enabled services for the public, without being hampered by the costs and limitations of the legacy system. 

Bola Rotibi, research director at CCS Insight, says: “The pressure to modernise IT infrastructures to meet new operational dynamics and business change has long been an important criterion for long-term growth and sustainability. This has enabled them to better capture a customer or citizen’s attention.  

Ultimately, modernising public sector IT systems improves the relationship citizens have with central government agencies and local government. Forrester predicts that this can have political benefits. According to Higgins and Barry, better agency CX helps strengthen the foundations of the political system by boosting people’s pride in the country, optimism for the country’s future, and belief that government can function well”. 

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