The race to public sector transformation

TechUK's survey of civil servants highlights the challenges of digital transformation in government

The coming decade will be one of the most challenging times for government as it strives to deliver better value for money while meeting the needs of an ageing and more demanding population.

To win the race, government must accelerate the transformation of public services through the smart application of digital technology. We need a public sector that is world-leading in its adoption and application of technology, and a civil service equipped with the right commercial and digital skills.

TechUK’s recent survey of nearly 1,500 civil servants revealed that while there is progress, in some areas we are not on the right track.

There is clear understanding of the potential – 84% of respondents agree or strongly agree that tech is critical to delivering their department’s business plan. However, there was broad agreement that capability to manage relationships with IT suppliers remains a weakness.

Only 14% rated commercial skills in their department as good, down 6% since 2015. More than half (53%) rated those skills as unsatisfactory or poor, with unsatisfactory ratings up 21% in the past 12 months.

These statistics may seem bleak, but they show we are on the starting blocks – there is increased awareness of the benefits of having the right skills to get the most out of digital.

The story for SMEs

The government is clear that it must broaden its supplier base if it is to get access to the best technologies. However, only 6% of survey respondents said they have access to a wide range of suppliers. This is down from 19% last year and shows the scale of the challenge.

Only one-fifth (21%) agree or strongly agree that there is appetite in their department to procure a higher percentage of technology services from SMEs. This lack of understanding of the benefits of a broad supply base is jeopardising the government’s target to procure 33% of technology from SMEs. Managing a broad supply base requires a range of skills that civil servants have identified as lacking.

Security and innovation at risk

The survey identified two clear areas where the public sector is falling at the first hurdle.

Only 46% of respondents said data security was the biggest obstacle to tech adoption. Security concerns are down from 55% in 2015, which is in direct conflict with the increased risk of cyber threats.

This is due to the fact that only 14% rated their department’s digital capability as “good”. Without the right skills, civil servants will struggle to identify the potential threats, which will harm the government’s ability to achieve its goals of transforming public services.

Similarly, only 16% of civil servants said access to disruptive technology would give government better value from the IT industry. This suggests that civil servants are not confident to embrace the challenge of innovative technology.

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But they are aware of the potential – 84% see technology as an enabler, rather than a necessary evil, which encourages us to think we can accelerate towards the finishing line. To do so, government and private sector must work together to:

  • Think big: We need big ambition, set at the top and living throughout every department across central and local government. This vision will be discussed at TechUK’s PS2030 conference.
  • Embrace innovation: incentivise the use of disruptive tech to drive change. The MoD Innovation Challenge is a blueprint for success.

Technology can be part of the solution to many of the social and economic challenges facing the UK today. We must work together to accelerate progress, or the dream of a digitally transformed public sector will slip from our grasp.

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