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Five things for public sector digital in 2020


Mark Say Managing Editor

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Editor does the annual gazing into the crystal ball to predict some trends for the year

There is a sense of things being on hold in the public sector digital space at turn of the year.

It is partly a consequence of a new government – well, the same as before, but now more deeply entrenched – government finding its feet with other issues much higher on the agenda. And there is the fact that the Government Digital Service (GDS) still has an interim leader without a clear indication of when the decision of a new chief – or confirmation that Alison Pritchard remains in the role – will be announced.

The organisation is still doing plenty of significant work on the nitty gritty of digital initiatives – check its launch of an API catalogue and development of guidance for moving away from the Public Services Network – but its broader vision for the next decade is familiar stuff. Also, its influence has been dissipated to a degree with responsibility for the National Data Strategy being in the hands of the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

NHSX is pushing the digital agenda in the health service and has outlined priorities around data access, increased use of smartphones and secure access to diagnostic information. It is likely to have a stronger direct influence on the digital efforts of NHS organisations.

There is also the fact that public authorities, especially in local government, are hindered by financial pressures in trying to break new digital ground. Most struggle to make the business case for significant investments within tight budgets and it takes some of the momentum out of the desire to innovate. This limits the scope for achieving wide ranging transformation.

But within these limits many authorities are getting on with, working on innovations with limited but worthwhile ambitions, and looking around to learn from what others have achieved and if possible reuse the solutions. It’s a case of progress by increments rather than a grand campaign.

Within that a few trends have been showing up, prompting these thoughts on what could prove to be common themes over 2020.

Increasing use of RPA

It has reached the point where robotic process automation is becoming a familiar fixture in public sector digital. A growing number of organisations have harnessed the technology to produce clear benefits in their processes – recent reports on UKA have focused on the National Crime Agency and Neath Port Talbot Council – and there are organised efforts to accelerate its use in central government, such as by the Department for Work and Pensions’ Intelligent Automation Garage and the Cabinet Office’s Robotic Automation Unit.

It is now a proven technology and there have been enough success stories to allay any anxieties about its adoption. More organisations are looking to identify the rules based data handling processes to which it can be successfully applied, seeing the scope for big time savings and increased reliability.

There will probably be some tensions. The fact is that it will transfer tasks previously done by people to machines, and although many organisations will emphasise the scope to free up staff for more rewarding work – and no doubt some will do so – it will also help to reduce headcounts over time and this will not be welcome everywhere. But the financial pressures and the reliability of the technology makes its advance in the public sector inevitable.

A more bespoke approach to cyber security

The cyber landscape is becoming even more complex. Internet of things networks are creating new vulnerabilities, the sharing of data with third parties raises concerns, and supply chains are becoming ever more sophisticated, which stretches out the digital chains with the risk of more weak points emerging. On top of that, cyber criminals are becoming increasingly clever, and there is an increasing use of cyber attacks by hostile nation states, some of which are ready to commit heavy resources.

There is also a movement for more guidance tailored to specific groups. This is already emerging with NHS Digital’s efforts for the health service and indications from the Local Government Association that it wants to do more for its own sector. It recognises that there are enough similarities in what they do to highlight common factors and appropriate responses to threats.

But many authorities could begin to feel that they need tailored solutions to match their data assets and processes, extending into the way they interact with their supply chains, more than ‘out of the box’ technology. It is likely to be an expensive approach, with an emphasis on consultancy and the bespoke rather than commoditised solutions, but one which many organisations feel they cannot neglect.

Extending data sharing for social care

The integration of health and social care has been a big factor for years, and progress has been made in some regions on shared records on individuals to improve the coordination of their care. But there has been a growing awareness that this does not go far enough: with so much social care being delivered by private or third sector providers, they also need to be part of the information loop.

There are some serious challenges in this. Many of the providers are small organisations with low levels of digital maturity, both in the technology they use and their information governance, and they are not well prepared to fully engage in sharing crucial data.

But this has been recognised as an issue, with NHS Digital, the Care Providers Alliance and the Care Software Providers Association making efforts to help care homes and domiciliary providers raise their game in the area. They have been trying to engage local authorities in the effort, and there has been an acknowledgement from some councils that this is a necessary move.

Local authorities have a significant role to play through their dialogue with providers, and will begin to see this as a necessity for the better integration of care.

More internal apps

The ubiquity of the smartphone has permeated the way that people in all sectors expect to work. They expect to be able to use that little computer in their pocket to tap into their organisation’s data sources, pull out relevant information and provide their own updates.

App development has focused largely on interacting with the public, but authorities are now recognising the value of mobile apps developed purely to support their own workforces and improve their organisational efficiency. Initiatives have been launched in healthcare to support clinical processes and moving patients around a hospital, some councils are using apps instead of papers in committee meetings, and HM Courts and Tribunals has implemented the use of smartphone identities to control access to court buildings.

Beneath all this is the drive throughout the public sector to slash the amount of paper that it uses. Combining this with the drive for more efficiency in working practices points to more of these initiatives emerging over 2020.

Wider use of digital twins

This is still a cutting edge concept for many, and it is unlikely to emerge as a widespread practice over the next year or so; but there is a growing interest around the possibilities for digital twins.

In short, it refers to a digital replica of physical assets, processes, people, places and systems, taking in all of the relevant data points. It can be used for monitoring, diagnostics, prognostics and intelligent maintenance and, as they become more sophisticated, predictive modelling.

Reports of pioneer projects have been cropping up more often, particularly in local government from sources such as Cambridgeshire and Greenwich councils, and it offers opportunities for a deep dive approach to investigating the data and digital implications for forward planning of urban and rural environments.

We could see more authorities begin to make use of the concept.

And for now …

A happy Christmas to all and our best wishes for the new decade.

Image by Ron Bodoh, CC BY-SA 4.0

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