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Public sector IT: The road to digital

Progress to digital transformation is patchy in the public sector, but some CIOs are embracing the strategy

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Is digital transformation in the public sector making progress?

Digital transformation has become an end-goal for almost every organisation in every sector, whether in the private or public sphere. Such digitisation involves using services and systems – such as cloud computing and big-data technologies – to make existing processes more effective and efficient. 

Although the hype around digital transformation is strong, the on-the-ground reality of digitisation can be disappointing. Industry body the Cloud Industry Forum suggests that progress is poor – just a quarter (28%) of UK organisations now have a fully formed digital transformation strategy in place.  

Progress is particularly patchy in the public sector. Gartner says government CIOs struggle to be responsive when it comes to developing fully formed digital initiatives. The analyst says the term digital transformation is actually used in public sector organisations to refer to more modest IT initiatives, such as putting services online or pursuing legacy modernisation.  

Subtle shift in focus 

It seems, therefore, as if digital transformation in the public sector is often more like a subtle shift in focus rather than full-blown digitisation. But it’s not all disappointing news. Some public sector CIOs are embracing digital transformation and turning the clamour for digitisation into an opportunity to change how their organisations work for the better. 

Take Simon Liste, chief information technology officer (CITO) at the Pension Protection Fund (PPF). Since assuming the CITO role towards the end of 2018, Liste has focused on bringing more IT back in-house. Most of the PPF’s IT was previously outsourced to a managed services provider, including elements of governance, security, architecture and service delivery. 

“We now have a hybrid platform of insourcing and outsourcing,” says Liste, explaining the changes he has helped to introduce. “I don’t want to have an IT department that’s just reliant on internal resources. To lower risk for the PPF, our approach is a mixture of the two. I want to know that we can ebb and flow between internal and external resources.” 

Liste is using the hybrid platform he has created to help deliver digitisation of the organisation’s services. One of his key aims for the next couple of years is to give its employees the capability to use any device to access the PPF’s applications from any location at any time.  

He also wants to ensure that PPF members – the people who rely on its services – can contact the organisation through a range of digital channels and devices. Liste says the mix of insourcing and outsourcing he has created means he has the potential to scale up via external provision when the clamour for digitisation demands. 

“So, I do want my cake and I definitely do want to eat it – I want the technical capabilities internally and I also want to have different partners segregated externally,” he says. “So we’ll have a security partner that we’ll work with, a service delivery partner, and a project management partner. But they’re all segregated, so that they actually have really healthy competition between themselves.” 

Liste’s approach demonstrates how the pioneering CIOs in the public sector are beginning to rethink the role of IT in an age of digitisation. These technology chiefs are shifting from a purely outsourced model to one where they consider how to attain a balance in provision, where organisations establish retained resources and capability, but can also migrate applications to the cloud when the time is right. 

Hugo Mathias, CIO at Northampton General Hospital NHS Trust, is another advocate of the use of on-demand IT. In fact, he believes it would be anathema for public sector IT leaders not to find ways to make use of external service provision. “I think everyone’s taking advantage of the cloud,” he says.  

Mathias is aiming to create an information-led hospital, where the reliance on paper-based records is broken, information is digitised, and then knowledge can be shared to help improve healthcare. Progress is already being made. The organisation is using Alfresco content-management technology to help to track and trace elective pathway management. 

With 300,000 outpatient appointments to manage each year, Mathias says he hopes that digitisation will help ensure better healthcare for patients across the trust. He says the key to success in a digital transformation project is having a joint approach between the IT department and the rest of the business. Standards play a key role and CIOs should be as open as possible in order to help support cross-function integration, he adds. 

“You must take a collaborative, joined-up approach and look to move toward open standards,” says Mathias. “That makes taking advantage of the cloud an awful lot easier. That way, you haven’t got to make so much effort in areas like integration engines and getting the right information in the right shape. If you’ve got open standards, it’s a lot easier for everybody.” 

His healthcare peer, Lisa Emery, CIO at Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, is another IT leader who believes smart use of the cloud can really make a difference. Emery says the Royal Marsden is looking at how it can use the cloud, notably spinning up Microsoft Azure instances, to support research processes.  

“We’ve taken the view that we want to get everything off premise where we can,” she says. “We’ve got an Azure tenancy and we’ve got a few things going across. But we’re just working at the minute at looking at our legacy estate. I think we’ve got in excess of 400 servers currently.” 

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Emery says older kit remains a key challenge for public sector IT leaders. “So we’re just looking at decommissioning and then moving what we can into the cloud,” she says. “But it’s the usual scenario – you’ve got legacy that can be upgraded and moved, and then some of it is so old that you have to think about whether you quarantine it or decommission it, or whatever it might be.” 

Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust continues to look for ways to take advantage of the cloud. The hospital runs a biomedical research centre in conjunction with the Institute of Cancer Research. Emery says the trust is investigating how it might work with the institute to develop its approach to on-demand IT, including through the use of expert advice or consultancy. 

Other public sector technology chiefs also recognise the power of cloud for pioneering research. Jason Oliver, director of IT at the University of Sussex, says one of his most important areas of focus right now is thinking about how his technology department supports the university’s researchers. 

Higher-education research is predominantly undertaken on physical tin and high-performance computing infrastructure. Oliver is working closely with Sussex academics and big-tech providers, including Microsoft and Amazon, to see how the university can make more use of the public cloud, so that it meets the needs of the research community. 

“And that that’s not a simple thing,” says Oliver. “So we’ve been working really closely with the big tech vendors to try to help them understand what research means, so that we can start to migrate our loads out to the cloud imminently.”  

At the other end of the country, Malcolm Lowe, head of IT at Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM), is another public sector CIO who has already made a big shift to on-demand IT services. TfGM is using Snowflake’s cloud-built data platform, running on Amazon Web Services (AWS), to harness and analyse crucial mobility data.  

Lowe says TfGM now uses its on-demand technology stack to run micro-simulations of transport networks and to extract travel patterns from its datasets. The benefits of a cloud-based digital transformation for the organisation are clear.  

“We’ve been able to put in place a much more strategic insight analytics platform for the organisation, which we’re continually building on month-on-month,” he says. “It’s providing great insights and analysis to the organisation. It helps the business to understand the transport network better.” 

Lowe says one of the key things he is really keen to push in his role is having design principles in terms of everything the organisation does with technology.  

One of the key principles is a cloud-first strategy for commodity services, says Lowe, adding: “No one in their right mind today would build and host their own data warehouse.” 

For public sector CIOs, Lowe believes the lesson is clear – find a way to start proving the benefits of digitisation as soon as possible. “I would say start small and look for some use cases to make it real,” he says. “For me, it’s all about proof of concepts, making transformation real for people and showing them what value they can get out of digitisation.”  

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