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Coronavirus: Why the public sector must pursue IT transformation

It is clear that the current coronavirus crisis has had a major impact on digital transformation efforts in the public sector

During the coronavirus pandemic, public sector organisations that already have integrated online systems are at a massive advantage when it comes to maintaining or augmenting the services they provide.

Similarly, the trend for colocation of development teams on-site has become obsolete, with the ability to collaborate and manage development securely online replacing it as the primary driver of productivity.

Along with a far greater insight into each other’s domestic arrangements, many of us are discovering productivity improvements when hours of travel are removed from our schedules. The speed with which we are all adapting to the online collaboration tools we already had, but perhaps weren’t using to their full potential, is remarkable.

The question is: how much will this experience change the way we work in the long term? One hopes that we will continue to burn a lot less time, money and carbon on unnecessary travel, but there are some more subtle lessons to be learned which should accelerate the citizen-centric digital transformation of government services.

Collaboration is far easier when there are common standards and data is easy to share. Empowerment is better than control when there is a common goal. For me, these two statements go a long way to describing the environment we need to create to enable the related aspirations for: 

  • More innovation.
  • A level playing field for smaller companies to compete based on capability.
  • A citizen-centric and devolved approach to service design.

Insourcing, outsourcing, cloud-based, on-premise, long contracts, short contracts, agile, waterfall – we love to oversimplify and create these false dichotomies, which then shape the efforts of the whole sector for years at a time. The real challenge is nothing to do with technology or procurement – it is much more fundamental.

Government’s role is to set big goals, define the common standards and create an environment where citizens and businesses can safely share information. In particular, we need a set of underpinning standards and legislative change to create a robust, reliable and open framework for digital identity solutions in both the public and private spheres.

It is a huge challenge, with an even greater prize. In a report last year, the McKinsey Global Institute stated: “Countries implementing digital ID could unlock value equivalent to 3-13% of GDP by 2030.” 

Read more about public sector IT modernisation

  • Progress to digital transformation is patchy in the public sector, but some CIOs are embracing the strategy.
  • Extensive research into cloud adoption trends in the public sector by Government Digital Service results in guidance detailing how IT leaders can make the most of their off-premise investments.

Of course, digital identity is a tough one – it is used in many different scenarios, and so different levels of security are required, and an emphasis on protection of personal data. But this also goes right to the heart of the issue. There are some things only the government can do. Once the framework is in place, the private sector can innovate.

This means the government must 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 programming interfaces) are a great starting point for transformation.   

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 in their own interests is the challenge the government needs to embrace.

Chris Gledhill is an SME member of TechUK’s Central Government Council and CEO of PDMS.

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