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Five things for public sector digital in 2018



Editor puts on a funny hat, does some nonsense with tea leaves, comes over all mystical about what will happen on the scene over the next year

Looking forward on the public sector digital scene involves one big contrast to a year ago. At the end of 2016 there was a big sense of anticipation, and plenty of uncertainty, around the impending publication of the Government Transformation Strategy. This year there is nothing on this scale in the pipeline and more a sense of needing to get on with things – although the advance of technology is throwing some radical ideas into the air.

Authorities are exploring the potential of artificial intelligence, data science, the internet of things, working in areas where there are few exemplars to follow and no national strategy to provide guidance. There are some bold projects in the air, and no doubt some will hit brick walls or fizzle out before the best emerge to provide leads for the public sector.

The heartening thing here is that a few pioneers are joining those from the private sector, where there is usually a greater appetite for risk, in opening up the potential. We just hope that they are allowed some leeway when things go wrong, and given the chance to learn from small failures and build something better for the long term.

Meanwhile old priorities remain: doing more with less to deal with the financial pressures, and aiming for a transformation that really hooks into the potential of digital technology. The latter is often vaguely defined, but this partly reflects a perspective that has been expressed more often in the past year: that transformation is more about perpetual change than creating a definitive model.

It needs a delicate balance between respecting the financial constraints, managing the risk in change, and being bold enough to grab the opportunities in digital technology sooner rather than later. We hope that plenty of organisations can find and maintain that balance.

With that in mind, here are a few predictions on what we can expect for the next year.

We’ll see more robots

Don’t think about R2-D2 and C-3PO working for the local council. It will be much more about robotic process automation, using the technology for the repetitive, mundane tasks, and chat and voice bots for dealing with the more straightforward customer enquiries. Whether the aim is to reduce headcount or redeploy staff, a lot of authorities are going to see the benefits in making this the next step in internal operations and customer contact.

We’ve seen organisations like Hackney Council and Warrington & Halton NHS Trusts make strides in using the former; and Aylesbury Vale Council, and Hackney again, experiment with the latter. And the Cabinet Office is taking steps to accelerate the use of RPA in central government. It does not seem like a big leap to these from existing technologies, and we’re expecting to hear of plenty more authorities taking their first steps over the year.

There are those with more ambitious ideas. We’ve seen the first step with Southend-on-Sea Borough Council unveiling Pepper, a robot that looks as if it could be a mate of the Star Wars duo, to play a part in its social care. There is plenty of talk about the potential for robots in care and education, and enough experimentation to suggest we’ll see some equivalents of Pepper in other places during the new year.

Experiments with 5G

It’s a few years away from being a fixture of the national infrastructure, but there is already a lot of excitement in public and private sectors about 5G wireless broadband. The prospects of faster speeds and the capacity to handle many more connections is encouraging some ambitious thinking about new types of services, and the ability to hook up with internet of things devices to build smart place infrastructures.

A few local authorities are taking a lead with 5G – for testbeds like in Basingstoke & Deane, or on a city-wide basis as in Aberdeen – and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has encouraged central and local government to support the installation of the infrastructure and get involved in trials.

It is going to need a massive investment, but this is likely to come from the private sector with public authorities playing a supporting role; and councils have good reason to make their assets available and provide support for pioneer networks. It would give them a cost-effective way to obtain the local infrastructure and the chance to work with tech firms, including local SMEs, to develop new solutions.

The odds are in favour of plenty more initiatives in the field this year.

More cross-public sector data initiatives

Most organisations appreciate the value of their data, but the old problem of it remaining in organisational silos has often restrained any ambition for exploiting it to the full.

Things are changing as it becomes increasingly necessary to sweat the data assets, and authorities are acknowledging that they are going to get a lot more value from pooling their data. It provides the scope to better understand how what they do relates to the activities of other organisations, and spot the societal trends to which services will have to adapt.

The immediate potential is in regional teams for data sharing and analytics, and initiatives are underway in London and Worcestershire. We can see more of these emerging, especially as the devolution agenda encourages more planning on a regional canvass.

Continued head scratching over GDPR and the DEA

It has been talked about it for years, and we’re only five months away from implementation, but there is still a strong sense that people have not got their heads around the EU General Data Protection Regulation.

The information chiefs in public authorities are aware of the big features such as the individual’s ‘right to be forgotten’, the need for a data protection officer, to report data breaches and carry out risk assessments on relevant activities. But they are unsure about day-to-day compliance, waiting for guidance from the Office of the Information Commissioner, which in turn is waiting for the Article 29 Working Party of the European Data Protection Supervisor.

It is all complicated by the passing of the Digital Economy Act, with its predisposition towards data sharing to support public services. A lot of people cannot see how the two will fit together.

In theory everyone has to be ready to comply by May, but it is difficult to see complete clarity emerging before then, or even in the course of the year. The questions are going to persist beyond the implementation date.

Devo regions to provide a local lead

With the exception of London it’s early days for England’s devolved regional authorities, but there are signs that they are not short of ambition in setting the pace with new approaches to digital and data.

Manchester is running a high level smart city project in the form of CityVerve and planning an information exchange for authorities around the city. The West of England Combined Authority is well placed to draw on Bristol’s work in the smart city space, and has already taken steps to improve mobile coverage in its region. And the West Midlands Combined Authority has made an early move to establish an Office of Data Analytics.

The nature of these authorities is to do things differently, with more coordination between neighbours and different public services, and this has to go hand in hand with breaking new ground with digital and data. They are bound to emerge as leaders in the field.

Open for opinions

That’s the editor’s reading of the tea leaves, and we’re always open to perspectives from public sector officials and their representative bodies. If you want to share your views do get in touch.

And for now …

Our best wishes for the new year.

Image by Simon Law, CC BY 2.0 through flickr

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