Socitm outlines public sector digital trends for 2022

Report identifies the key areas of focus for technology decision-makers in government in the months ahead, across areas from cyber and data to digital identity and 5G

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Why watching your remote workers doesn’t work

The Society for Innovation, Technology and Modernisation (Socitm) has published its yearly report outlining key public sector digital trends for 2022, with highlights including a greater focus on systems interoperability and integration, as well as an acceleration in the way organisations harness data.

Despite being heavily influenced by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the report elaborates how a number of key developments relating to technology will affect decision-making in the public sector.

According to the report, authored by Socitm’s associate director and past president Jos Creese, the coming months will be “less about IT exploitation and management, and more about true transformational impact on citizens”.

“This includes resolving issues that inhibit deeper collaboration between public service organisations around individual citizen needs, including those with no ‘digital footprint’,” wrote Socitm president Sam Smith, in the report’s foreword.

While many government organisations already place citizens at the centre of their digital initiatives, and many have increased efforts as a result of the pandemic, Smith argued that these practices are “far from universal”.

“Many organisations continue to design digital solutions from the ‘inside out’, which can compromise efficiency, productivity and the adoption of new innovative models of service delivery,” said Smith.

Challenges ahead

Public sector organisations will be faced with challenges in the coming months, ranging from new austerity and post-Covid “catch up” to new partnership models and growing digital risks, in addition to the possibility that the pandemic might still be a reality for some years to come. According to the report, digital ways of thinking and design will be key to how public sector IT teams will handle these hurdles.

In this challenging context, the briefing noted that the public service will need to recalibrate the way in which public services are organised to build on digital solutions blended with face-to-face delivery.

This will entail acting in areas such as normalising new ways of working while offering staff the necessary digital infrastructure, which in turn needs to be revisited in terms of priorities, risks, investments and management methods.

IT and digital plans will also need to be reviewed to match the digital pace as organisations move towards a new phase of digital progress. The report noted that new delivery models will be increasingly complex in 2022, as public awareness grows around themes such as data protection, digital including and automated decision systems.

Moreover, the research warns the public will be increasingly intolerant of poorly designed digital services, or having to cope with the lack of safe and effective data sharing between public service organisations.

Outlining three tasks for senior IT leaders in delivery successful digital solutions for citizens, the research outlined the need to review IT and digital strategies, prioritising the technology areas outlined throughout the report.

In addition, the briefing urged leaders to understand the need to build credibility, knowledge and influence in areas such as data ethics, wider cyber risk management and trust frameworks. Another task is to work on the ability to develop new collaborative networks within and between government organisations and with citizens.

“None of these [tasks] can be done alone, and the degree to which the public service CIOs work credibly with main boards and with politicians, as well as with partner organisations, will be an increasingly defining factor in the success of those organisations from 2022”, the briefing noted.

‘Moving on’ from Covid

The unprecedented cultural change and digital acceleration introduced to public sector organisations after the emergence of Covid is irreversible, the report noted. It added that the circumstances have introduced new levels of cyber risks, and a need to rebalance business continuity and risk planning with digital transformation investments.

IT teams have also been under additional pressure to deal with legacy risks and constraints while having to adopt new technologies and digital methods. At the same time, some staff have been left behind in terms of skills needed to become “digital employees” with the shift to remote working, while digital inclusion has become something that “should be embedded in everything that councils do”.

The report argued that, in the coming months, it will be important to “move on from Covid”, adding: “[This can be done] by addressing post-pandemic digital legacies, focusing more on the opportunities for better public service outcomes that build on the positive digital acceleration in 2021, while ensuring that nobody is left behind.”

Cyber security will also take centre stage in terms of priorities for public sector IT leaders, according to the report, which urged heads of technology departments to be prepared. Since risks are heightened, impact has grown due to the reliance on digital and public services are seen as a target, it said.

According to the Socitm briefing, risks are greater for organisations lacking clarity about responsibilities and accountabilities for cyber resilience, “or where they simply leave it to the IT department to manage”.

“In 2022, all public bodies should review their cyber practices. This is more than just IT security and access, linking through to business continuity and civic resilience in the light of accelerated digital adoption,” the report noted.

Data democratisation

Data will continue to be “fuel that drives the engine” when it comes to digital strategies, the report noted, adding that councils that do not have a data strategy, with chief officer oversight, need to consider this as a priority for 2022.

In this context, the report raised some aspects to be considered, such as that the role of the chief data officer or equivalent roles in public sector organisations will be to ensure this is a well-managed resource – and just as important of a resource as people, buildings or money.

We need to really think about what data we hold, how we harness it and how we safely use it
Alison Hughes, Liverpool City Council

Risks relating to areas such as data ethics, inclusivity, privacy and data sharing, and collaboration should receive more focus, the report noted, adding that this is particularly relevant as data volumes grow in highly distributed cloud environments.

Inter-organisational agreements on data sharing in areas such as health and integrated care systems will gain momentum in 2022. In areas such as health and care, public scrutiny will encourage staff in these areas to prioritise maintenance and accuracy of data on clients and patients.

As the public becomes more aware of how their data is being used, the report warned that placing data in their hands can be difficult in practice. It argued that citizens are not uniformly ready for that digital shift as systems are still largely centralised and curated by professionals, and there is a variety of scenarios where data sharing with citizens requires extra care.

“The development of a council data strategy and accompanying action plan has never been a greater priority for us,” said Alison Hughes, assistant director of ICT, digital and customer at Liverpool City Council. “We need to really think about what data we hold, how we harness it, how we safely use it, and create an ethical framework to equip our staff to deliver better services.”

Digital identity

Among the trends outlined in the Socitm briefing is digital identity. According to the report, local government and parts of the centre have been waiting for a national solution following the failure of national programmes such as Verify. This has led to organisations developing their own digital authentication solutions, introducing the risk of creating a “patchwork” of digital solutions that are “typically locked into service silos, are not shareable and are incompatible”.

The report acknowledged initiatives from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to develop a trust framework for digital identity for both the public and private sectors. It mentioned initiatives such as the NHS App as developments that are “showing the art of the possible” in terms of digital ID and that the public, although cautious, appears ready to accept the concept of IDs.

The success of digital IDs will depend on national frameworks that recognise the complexity of public services delivery and management rather than focusing on, for example, the opportunities for the financial services sector, the report said. The briefing also forecasted the emergence of interoperable digital ID solutions for the public sector that caters for diverse citizen needs, including digitally excluded individuals.

“In 2022, we expect to see the emergence of a common, inclusive trust framework embracing the full spectrum of public sector services and users, providing a platform for interoperable digital identity solutions,” the report said.

Tech interaction

When it comes to technologies such as internet of things (IoT), 5G, cloud computing and artificial intelligence (AI), the briefing looked into how these four areas interact.

In relation to IoT, the report noted that the technology will be increasingly hooked up to more powerful processors and AI engines – and this will allow the ever-increasing volumes of data to be linked and analysed for wider insight and action.

“IoT has become a hugely important technology for public services in many different applications,” the report said. “In 2022, the greater connectivity and processing opportunities will require a coordinated approach to IoT deployment, maximise value and to control risks.”

On AI, the briefing argued that the majority of the applications in the public sector to date have been limited to customer service interfaces, or have been present in individual automation components such as robotic process automation (RPA).

The report anticipated that this will change in 2022, with an acceleration driven by the demands for greater efficiency and the need to deliver more personalised services. This momentum will often be linked to IoT infrastructure and to using cloud processing. According to the report, areas likely to see faster AI development include packaged applications such as the latest cloud ERP systems for recruitment and retention, and CRM systems for next-generation chatbots and non-personal uses.

On the other hand, leaders in the public sector will need to establish clear principles for AI application, particularly in areas such as human resources (HR) and in citizen-facing applications that might have an impact on the lives of citizens.

“In 2022, CIOs, CDOs, policy-makers and risk managers should understand the potential of AI to enhance public service delivery, but also how to manage the risks that this can entail,” the report said. “Board members and politicians should be involved in the principles guiding AI developments, with as much transparency as possible for the public.”

Board members and politicians should be involved in the principles guiding AI developments, with as much transparency as possible for the public
Socitm report

On cloud, the message is that the current processing environment is “more complicated, hidden and ‘ever-changing’ than before”, and leaders shouldn’t be looking at traditional ways to manage this.

“In 2022, IT leaders need to consider the tools and techniques needed to understand, control and interact with a multiverse of cloud and other components that make up digital infrastructures,” it said.

Regarding 5G, the report pointed out that the new technology offers opportunities, but it will take time for most of the population to own 5G-enabled smartphones. This presents a challenge for digital leaders in public services in the months to come, the briefing noted, as they will be “eager to develop new applications that exploit growth in network capacity, but mindful of the imperative of leaving no-one behind on the journey”.

According to Socitm, local government will have to ensure 5G roll-out “does not disenfranchise more rural communities, nor that development of digital applications that depend on 5G result in greater inequality in access to digital services.” It added that leaders should improve citizen services by exploring the potential of increased network capacity and speeds.

The report approached a related trend of app consolidation. It noted that there are currently around 100 apps covering all aspects of public service delivery, but this myriad of tools is becoming confusing – and councils will need to rethink citizen-facing apps in the coming months.

“The growth in service-specific apps for public services will continue in 2022, but local authorities need to consider how app consolidation, especially for place-based digital services, can improve the citizen experience,” it added.

Public sector bodies should also look into visualisation methods and tools, such as virtual reality and gamification software for all aspects of service design, to better reflect citizen behaviours, needs and preferences, the study noted.

CIO impact

The prioritisation and creation of business cases for digital programmes and tech investment is another challenge and area of focus listed in the Socitm briefing. While the role of IT as an enabler of council goals rather than simply being a back-office function has been put into focus during Covid, making the case for investment in technology can still be challenging – which doesn’t mean that the case is not strong.

Moreover, the report stated that “public service digital strategies, when examined closely, are just rebranded IT strategies, not true digital change programmes”, and that this will increasingly hamper digital trends progress in the coming months.

According to the briefing, CIOs in government “need to take time out to review a variety of aspects of how they and their teams function, and how they can contribute through digital and IT to tackle wider the wider challenges and pressures facing the public sector”.

Climate change, zero carbon targets and sustainability will move up the priority list of public sector IT leaders, the Socitm briefing noted, adding that while tech contributes to global environmental pressures, it also opens up opportunities to contribute to the green agenda.

The topic will have a growing impact on digital strategies in the public sector from 2022. “This includes both the use of cleaner technologies and technologies to protect the environment better. Councils will have a key role in supporting this agenda and ensuring understanding and support in communities,” the report said.

Geoff Connell, director of information management and technology and chief digital officer at Norfolk County Council, provided examples of ways in which local authorities will be looking to reduce their overall carbon use through technology. These include use of dashboards, predictive analytics, video meetings and remote working to reduce travel, as well as use of hyperscale cloud services, AI applied to satellite imaging and drones instead of in person inspections.

“I predict an expectation of increased availability of higher quality ‘immersive hybrid’ AV and teleconferencing tech to ensure the meeting room experience is as equal as possible, whether an attendee is physically present or joining from a remote location,” Connell added. “This expectation will also extend to higher production quality broadcasting of democratic meetings.”

The report also cites the political priorities of social value, and the “levelling up” agenda to reduce inequalities across geographies, and how these will relate to digital strategies in 2022. Ways in which this will be important include the provision of non-digital safety valves as well as face-to-face contact when required in digital service models, along with encouraging technology business support and investment locally.

“Improving social value in the way in which local public services and the private sector work together, in the interest of communities, is a high priority for the UK government,” the report said. “In 2022, much of this responsibility will rest with local government, particularly in the design, development and delivery of digital solutions.”

Read more about public sector IT

Read more on IT for government and public sector

Data Center
Data Management