A gaze into the crystal ball at questions and priorities for the digital services agenda over the coming year
One thing that became clear at the back end of 2015 is that digital is high up the government’s agenda.
Among the surprises of the Spending Review was the £450 million handed to the Government Digital Service (GDS), part of £1.8 billion spread around the public sector for digital transformation, and chunks of money for specific projects such as the emergency services communications network and the Healthcare Innovation Testbed.
But the outlook is not rosy all round. Finances remain tight for most organisations, and the need to do more with less is as strong as ever. With this in mind, here are a handful of issues that are likely to be prominent for public sector IT over the next year.
What about local government?
Local authorities were big losers in the Spending Review, with nothing made available to support their digital efforts and, according to Local Government Association (LGA) estimates, are suffering a £4.1 billion cut in funding over the next four years and the prospect of a 6.7% reduction in their overall income.
They are faced with the dilemma of needing to go much further down the digital road to fulfil their role in the long term, but struggling to find the money to maintain existing services, let alone in invest heavily in new technology. It needs a shared effort with a pooling of resources to make a difference.
There have been calls for GDS to devote more attention to supporting local services, but so far the response has been non-committal; the organisation has a more immediate priority in pursuing its work for central government. Local government organisations such as the LGA, Socitm and the Society of Local Government Chief Executives may be good for ideas and strategy on how to respond, but they lack the resources for the development work.
Can councils share the expense of a coordinated effort? Will the government decide it has to provide some heavy duty support? One of the answers has to be a ‘yes’, or local government’s problems will only get worse.
More online self-service
Say it quietly, but doing more with less means losing a significant number of staff, and one way of doing this is to get the public doing more for themselves.
It’s a realistic expectation, given that anyone who is digitally savvy is now booking holidays, flights, theatre tickets and restaurant tables online, and buying lots of stuff from Amazon. There has also been plenty of progress in people transacting with their local authorities and sorting out their tax and various other central government services online.
As more business is done this way, fewer people are needed in contact centres, and that will make a difference to the wage bill long term. Expect to see organisations combing their service portfolios to see what else can go to online self-service, and doing the work on user experience to encourage people to take that route.
Often people start out to do things themselves through a website, run into a problem and need support. A lot of commercial companies are mastering the art of the webchat, handling the enquiry through a text conversation.
It still needs employees in the contact centre, but has a big advantage over the phone in that they can keep up more than one conversation simultaneously. There are different opinions on the limit – some organisations believe it is three, others as high as seven – and it will depend on how quickly the customer executive can think and type. But when it becomes embedded it’s another step towards significant savings.
More mobile and flexible working
Yes, it has been on the agenda for years, and there has been plenty of progress in enabling employees to do their thing out in communities; but the next step is get more people working from home.
Office space is a major expense, and as authorities look for long term savings one of the solutions is to get rid of as many offices as possible. They might decide they can work with buildings able to take only 80% of their staff, or 70%, or 50%. After all, most people now have an OK broadband connection at home, are familiar with online sharing services and have improved their understanding of security protocols and the need to keep devices and data safe.
There is bound to be resistance, from managers who don’t like the idea of not having their staff in sight, and from employees who fear going stir crazy at home; but there is also a lot of scope to sell the idea with talk about work-life balance and the prospect of dropping the daily commute.
Of course it needs aligning with a ‘bring your own device’ or a ‘choose your own device’ policy, but it will be a feasible strategy to cut costs for a lot of organisations.
Placing control of health and social care into the hands of a regional body is a two-way step: devolving some powers down to the level of a metropolitan authority while pulling together others from the city’s local councils. It is also a big step towards the integration of the two strands of care, one of the key elements of the NHS Five Year Forward View.
Getting the IT right will be a significant element of its work. Providing the technology infrastructure might prove relatively straightforward, but aligning the data flows between the various bodies – especially enabling some sharing between health and social care – is going to be a stiff task.
Compatibility of datasets, protocols for document sharing and ensuring only the right professionals have access to records will all be difficult, and the issues become more complex when charities that provide services are brought into the equation.
The city will be breaking ground that other regions are expected to follow, and a lot of people will be watching to see what works and what doesn’t as it grapples with the digital challenges.
And for now …
A happy new year.
Image by By Feeji30139 (own work), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons