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Five things for public sector digital in 2017

30/12/16

What’s going to be on the agenda for digital leaders in the public services over the new year? Editor fixes his gaze on the future

It’s an awkward time to be sizing up the coming year for the public sector digital agenda. A lot could be determined by the new strategy from the Government Digital Service (GDS), for which everyone has been waiting … and waiting … and waiting …

Hands over crystal ballEarly reports of draft versions suggest that it takes a broad brush approach with plenty of familiar talk about transforming services and breaking down service barriers, developing skills and promoting multi-channel services. If this is how it remains for the published version it will not cause any big surprises.

But there is also an assertion that GDS will remain at the centre of the effort, and that its Government as a Platform programme still has a long way to run. This is significant considering the speculation last year about the organisation’s future, especially in the run-up to the sudden change in leadership in August, and indicates it is secure on its perch and in control of the £450 million awarded in 2015.

Elsewhere, the priority for most organisations will be around cost cutting through digital, aiming for that holy grail of combining financial sustainability with better quality frontline services. There is a real sense of urgency around this in local government, facing up to the disappearance of funds from the centre and uncertainty about its own future revenue streams.

It will only survive if it seriously shakes up its operations – ‘digital transformation’ probably means more for councils than any other public sector organisations – and this is going to reflect one of the trends of the year.

GDS gets more local

There were a lot of complaints late in 2015 when local government received nothing in the Spending Review to support its digital efforts. And for a long time there has been a perception that GDS is all about getting central government to do things differently.

But over the past year it has stepped up its efforts to work with local authorities, particularly on the GOV.UK Verify programme. It can go a long way to justifying its generous backing from the Treasury with more of this; not just in sharing expertise with local government, but in listening to councils' needs as it pursues its platform and data programmes.

In addition, its recently appointed chief Kevin Cunnington has talked of plans to set up a presence in different parts of the country. This may be aligned with regional centres of Whitehall departments, but it indicates that the organisation is spreading its wings beyond London.

This aligns with a change in its character. In its first three years under Mike Bracken it was often perceived as abrasive and there to lecture rather than listen; but in the year under Stephen Foreshew-Cain it leaned towards a more genuine dialogue with other organisations. The natural progression is to work more closely with local authorities.

Making more of bots

Artificial intelligence has still got more to do with science fiction than service delivery for most authorities, but a handful are looking at what they can do with the more rudimentary form of a bot.

It’s a software application that automates simple tasks over the internet, much faster than a human can handle. They have evolved to the point where chatbots – programs that simulate human conversation in text or through voice simulation – have become a viable resource. They run to a script but have the potential to learn as they go along.

Vendors are already pushing the potential in the market, and Enfield Council is ready to take the first step in the spring with the launch of its Amelia customer service agent. It plans to kick off with processes for building and planning controls but aims to do much more in the future.

Early days, but the technology could lead to the automation plenty of customer facing services, and lay the ground for working with fewer people on the payroll. A lot of authorities are going to be very interested in the Enfield experience this year.

More integrated care records

The momentum for the integration of health and social care is gathering, supported by schemes for a joint digital care record.

They can be applied on a city-wide basis: the Leeds Care Record has been in place since 2013, and elements have been made available for wider use through the Ripple platform. There are regional initiatives: the Great North Care Record is under development, already live in some authorities in the North East. Or they can work at more local level: Islington Council and the local clinical commissioning group have signed for the development of a service.

It reflects a long standing acknowledgement that the two services need to be aligned to work most effectively; and, after years of anxieties stoked up by rows over the Summary Care Record and care.data, the emergence of a more confident attitude towards data sharing. The technology has also moved forward in its use of interoperability standards and handling of datasets.

We can expect to see plenty more joint care records come into play over the next year.

New attitudes to cyber security

Cyber is always high on the agenda, but there are signs of fresh thinking, prompted partly by the establishment of the National Cyber Security Centre.

The organisation has taken a higher profile than its predecessor, CESG, in leading the effort to make the public and private sectors more secure, and this could encourage a more open debate about what does and doesn’t work.

It has recently made clear its view that one popular policy – regular password expiry – does more harm than good, and pressed organisations to use a reliable Domain Name System resolution service to keep malware out of their networks.

Ideas have also come from other sources. Socitm president Geoff Connell recently called for an emphasis on security to be “built in by design”; David Carroll, chair of Cyber North, said that regional groups could work closely with local companies to develop practical approaches; and there was talk at UKAuthority’s recent Local Digital Transformation conference of shifting the focus away from strengthening perimeters to building security into every element of the digital infrastructure.

The ground is always going to shift around cyber security, and it always needs new ideas to respond to the threats. There are signs of them being more openly exchanged.

Drones hover

A lot of people don’t like them, and the Government has published a consultation on how they should be regulated, but drones are now part of the landscape and some will ask how they can contribute to public services.

The University of Leeds started looking at the issue more than a year ago, supported by the city council, and there might be some applications in local government. They could play a significant role in managing local environments through aerial photography, and support community safety efforts by linking a video capability to law enforcement or social care data.

No doubt such ideas would kick off the familiar arguments about intrusions into privacy and the appropriate use of images and data. It would lead to a heated debate.

And authorities would have to worry about their drones being shot out of the sky.

And for now …

A happy new year.

Image by By Feeji30139 (own work), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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