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Five things for public sector digital in 2019

21/12/18

Mark Say Managing Editor

If one thing marks the turn of the year for public sector digital it’s a sense of organisations not looking for any big nationwide strategy but just getting on with things.

Crystal ball

It might be because the Government Digital Service has been beavering away on the intricacies of making digital solutions work rather than letting loose with any major initiatives; although that could change when it publishes an innovation strategy at some time in the new year.

It could be because public authorities know what they need to do and are looking for sustainable, cost-effective ways of doing it. There seems to be a consensus around the need to cut costs by removing the duplication of effort, automating more processes and looking for how to harness machine learning and artificial intelligence with radical solutions.

Plenty of organisations are looking to innovate, but on a small scale that makes the risk more manageable, and there is plenty of talk about learning from each other and sharing solutions.

There has been a welcome move with the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (MHCLG) setting up its Local Digital Collaboration Unit and providing some funds – not mega money but welcome nonetheless – to support digital projects among local authorities. It was a step towards addressing a shortcoming that had undermined the efforts of councils to respond to massive funding cuts and develop new service models that might be sustainable into the 2020s.

The overall mood seems to be “Let’s do our little bit and see what we can pick up from others”. It’s perfectly sensible and, given the negative headlines in the past when big projects became croppers, it is probably best to avoid any bold public announcements. It’s a case of attempting to do what looks manageable and banging the drum when the job is done.

With that in mind, here are some thoughts on what could prove to be common themes in the course of 2019.

More shared solutions

Shared services have not become the norm in the way the evangelists predicted back in the 2000s. There have been some successful arrangements, but others have hit the rocks – see the deal between Camden, Islington and Haringey Councils this year – and when feelers have been extended they have often been brushed away.

The proposition comes with political implications that make some senior officials uncomfortable. It is especially the case in local government where party political differences can get in the way or some councils feel it threatens their viability.

But sharing specific digital solutions could be a lot more palatable. With sufficient similarities in their digital infrastructures and processes, organisations could cut development and running costs by being willing to pick up what had been proved by a counterpart to work successfully.

Public sector IT association Socitm has been pushing the idea for years, and some positive signs are emerging: the MHCLG funding is based on the idea that solutions can be re-used by other councils, and the recent reactivation of the Pipeline set up by practitioner group LocalGov Digital could provide further impetus.

It makes sense for organisations to copy what works, although it will need a welcoming landscape in terms of intellectual property and licensing. We can see more organisations, councils in particular, looking to go down this route.

More low code platforms

‘Commodity good, bespoke bad’ has been something of a mantra in government IT for a long time, but a lot of organisations are still stuck with highly customised legacy systems that bring all the old disadvantages of vendor lock-in, a need for complex coding for any changes, barriers to the integration of APIs and lack of interoperability.

The growing interest in low code platforms on which digital processes can be configured, often by staff without in-depth digital skills, shows there is a will to break the mould. It has given Microsoft some traction in the market for its Dynamics 365 platform, there has been the recent report of Folkestone & Hythe Council committing to the Arcus Global platform built on Salesforce, and Adur & Worthing Councils have developed their own low code platform specifically for local government.

The promise of being able to configure services rather than rely on complicated coding, with all the costs it entails, is likely to be attractive for plenty more authorities. Expect to see news of more deals and possibly new platforms.

Increasing use of geospatial data

It’s not just the creation of the Geospatial Commission – although that is providing momentum for the cause – as there is plenty more talk around using geospatial data as a core element of service delivery and planning in the public sector.

Authorities have long been aware of its importance, but as it becomes more detailed and data management techniques more sophisticated, the potential to integrate geospatial with other types of data is on an upward curve. This can generate previously unobtainable insights and enable authorities to target services more effectively at the people and communities that really need them.

An important element of this is the promise of a growing ecosystem of small companies – akin to that arising around AI – to provide new solutions for public and private sectors. One of the key purposes of the Geospatial Commission is to foster the growth of this sector, and it promises to evolve as a significant element of the govtech industry.

A growth in national infrastructure data

It isn’t something new – as soon as the idea of a national infrastructure was acknowledged it involved a strong data element – but there is a growing sense that government, utilities and infrastructure providers could do more with a wider range or more detailed data.

The Government has highlighted its importance in its commissioning of a study on infrastructure resilience, and the indication that it sees a role for the Data Analytics Facility for National Infrastructure.

A notable initiative has emerged in the form of Project Iceberg, in which the Future Cities Catapult, Ordnance Survey and the British Geological Survey are aiming to build a data framework on the underground features in cities. And the expansion of geospatial data will provide a lot that is relevant to the national infrastructure and could be used by a range of agencies.

As it becomes available expect more organisations to ask what they could do with it.

Cyber anxieties around the IoT

As an increasing number of local authorities develop ambitions to build smart places they will have to face up to the risks that come with all those sensors and devices feeding data, and who knows what else, into their digital systems.

Cyber experts have been warning for some time that internet of things devices will create a multitude of vulnerable points that cyber villains could target, and although no-one wants to be alarmist, it will probably be just a matter of time before an incident causes significant disruption somewhere.

Of course, public authorities have a responsible attitude to this and have cyber security specialists facing up to the threat; but the dark forces are always finding new ways around the protective measures, and the good guys are always going to have to work hard to hold their ground. There is going to be a lot of debate – no doubt much of it behind closed doors – and plenty of warnings about protecting the IoT.

Open for opinions

That’s the editor’s perspective, and we’re always open to others from public sector officials and their representative bodies. If you want to share your views do get in touch. mark@ukauthority.co.uk.

And for now …

Have a cool yule and our best wishes for the new year

Image by K. D. Schroeder, CC BY-SA 4.0

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