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Five things for public sector digital in 2021


The experience of the pandemic is set to have a significant effect on priorities for the coming year

Public sector digital teams have been on the frontline of the response to Covid-19 over 2020.

It may not have hit the headlines in the general press, but anyone in the sector will be aware of their role in maintaining internal and public facing services through the lockdown – especially in supporting the widespread move to home working – and in quickly developing new services to support the response.

They have been active in providing mechanisms to co-ordinate support for vulnerable people, facilitate collaboration with the third sector, support people in managing their own health, collect data on the spread of the virus and support the logistical effort for the health service.

It has all come in response to a global emergency, and we hope the demands that have prompted this will be overcome over the next year. But UKAuthority’s conversations with digital leaders have conveyed a strong sentiment that this should not be a short term shake-up but a game changer for the long term.

The pandemic has pushed aside some old assumptions about the ways to run projects, and raised some elements of the digital and data effort up the agenda, making them priorities rather than aspirations.

So here are some predictions on what we can expect going into 2021.

Faster project delivery

Expectations have changed about the appropriate speed to develop digital and data initiatives. In many quarters a previous adherence to slow, box ticking project development – reflecting bureaucratic demands and a risk averse mindset – has been replaced by a sense that it is necessary to get a service up and running in days rather than months.

This has drawn on agile working, a more open attitude towards sharing data, a new drive for collaboration between teams and a sense that perfection is not always necessary. The important thing has been to develop projects that are ‘good enough’ and can be further refined once they are up and running.

The change has been welcomed by most people in the community, with a sense that it has shown organisations how to achieve more with a limited resource. Approaching projects like this over the long term may lead to a few failures, but these can be replaced and would be outweighed by the public value in more services that quickly meet urgent needs.

Maybe the need to deliver projects in days may recede, but we’ll see more that will run from beginning to conclusion in weeks rather than months.

A consolidation of home working

A priority for digital teams in the early days of lockdown was to ensure that people usually working from an office could do so from their homes. Even when the numbers ran into the thousands most pulled it off successfully, despite running into serious obstacles around the availability of devices, connectivity, remote access to cloud systems and virtual private networks, and the additional strain on bandwidth.

There is now a consensus that, despite a partial return to the office, there has been a permanent shift in the balance between that and home working. While it is a mixed picture, a lot of people prefer being free of the office and the daily commute, public authorities are seeing an opportunity to save money by reducing their property estate, and different attitudes have emerged towards managing staff. There is a growing acceptance that what gets done is more important than being physically present.

This has been made possible by the widespread take-up and growing comfort with using video conferencing and other collaboration tools, and one of the priorities will be to consolidate this change. There has been progress but also a sense that many teams could still get more from the digital tools they are using, and there is a need for more training and peer support in bringing everyone into the loop.

Organisations will also have to support home connectivity for staff who live in poorly served parts of the country. IT teams will have to be ready to back up those who have problems, watch the market for new options and be ready to move quickly in ensuring that people are given extra bandwidth at the earliest opportunity.

Raising digital and data standards in care homes

A longstanding shortcoming in the care sector has been that many care homes – often private businesses providing a public service – have had limited digital capacity. There have also been issues around the inconsistency of data. This has undermined efforts to build a fully integrated care system; and shortcomings have been exposed during the pandemic.

Efforts were being made to overcome the problems before it broke, such as the Care Software Providers’ Assocation’s initiative to establish clear data standards for the sector. But the awareness of the need to bring care homes into the digital loop has increased.

This should provide the drive for increased investment in their connectivity and digital capabilities, and maintain the focus on data standards, with support from local authorities and the NHS where it is feasible. While few care homes have the resource for a digital team, there is a case for a centralised body to provide specialised support, and for finding digital champions among their staff to lead their individual efforts.

More cognitive tools in automation

Robotic process automation has become a fixture in the public sector, with a large number of organisations now extending its use and central support from initiatives such as an NHSX plan to build a roadmap for deployment and the Crown Commercial Service planning a procurement framework.

The more ambitious organisations are now looking at how automation can be combined with cognitive tools, such as speech or optical character recognition, to help it deal with unstructured data. There is also scope to incorporate artificial intelligence and machine learning.

It is early days and any projects are likely to have limits on their ambition, but there is a view in the sector that progress is possible and that automation can do a lot more than has been seen so far.

An increased focus on ethics in algorithms

The controversy over the use of algorithms in marking down A level results for many students stirred up the debate over the broader issue – despite the authorities’ retreat from the initial position. The issue was also fuelled by continuing arguments over police forces’ use of facial recognition technology. People have long been wary of the thought of machines making decisions that could affect their lives, and this added fuel to the debate over where the boundaries should be placed.

Various contributions have been made, including a BCS survey pointing to a lack of trust in how the public sector uses algorithms, and a call by the Centre for Data Ethics to impose a ‘transparency obligation’ on their use.

Nothing has been settled, largely because the technology is evolving quickly and it is difficult to grasp all the implications. But it is a highly contentious subject that, if handled badly, could undermine trust not just future plans for the use of algorithms but more of the public sector’s use of data.

It needs the ethical considerations to be taken into account on every project, and the development of strong guidance from the centre that helps public authorities navigate a route through the hazards.

And a big positive

Underlying all this is another perception of changing attitudes, as digital teams have seen an increased appreciation of their roles from the boardroom and at all other levels in their organisations. There has been a strong growth in the perception that digital is an intrinsic part of what the public sector does and that its leaders have to be involved in shaping the future for their organisations. Hopefully this attitude will prevail.

And on that note we wish you a good Christmas and all the best for the new year.

Image from iStock, Dilak Kaisataporn

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