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Five things for public sector digital in 2022

22/12/21

Mark Say Managing Editor

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Our annual look at trends that we see gathering steam over the next year

It has been a less frenetic but still busy year for digital teams in the public sector.

Neon door in cyber space

Covid-19 subsided but didn’t go away, many of the services rushed into place in 2020 became fixtures in 2021, and there was more time to focus on the long term pressures of meeting ever increasing demands with the tight budgets, limitations of legacy systems and skills shortages in the sector.

But there was still some great, imaginative work by digital teams, extending the capabilities of established systems, exploring the potential of emerging technologies and maintaining the push towards cross-sector working.

This was accompanied by efforts from the centre to provide a fresh impetus to various service areas, with the setting up of the Central Digital and Data Office for central government, the continued efforts of the Local Digital Collaboration Unit in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and a stream of initiatives by NHSX to boost the digital capabilities of organisations in health and social care.

Going into 2022 there are issues that have been around for some time but which seem to be climbing agendas, and on which we can see more progress on the horizon. These are our five stand-outs for the year.

From RPA to intelligent automation

Robotic process automation has become a significant feature for many organisations, with software bots taking on simple, rules based processes that give human staff extra time for the more demanding elements of their jobs. There is still a long way to go in its deployment, but some organisations are now showing an appetite for more ambitious programmes of intelligent automation (IA), wrapping machine learning and artificial intelligence around RPA.

Among these are Norfolk County Council, which has developed a framework for IA, and the Financial Ombudsman, which has outlined plans to build up an internal capability. IT industry association techUK has published recommendations to boost the take-up of IA in central government, and there are bound to be lessons that can be shared around local government and the health service.

It points towards automating processes that are more challenging and use less structured data, but remaining within boundaries that do not open up the big, sensitive questions about the use of artificial intelligence. It’s something we can see engaging more authorities over the coming year.

Public sector connectivity for communities

Local authorities in particular have emerged as important players in the provision of high speed connectivity in smaller urban areas and less populous parts for the country. Several have provided the role of anchor tenants for network operators who can then make connectivity available for businesses and residents.

This has taken a new turn as some councils look to ensure smaller community buildings, not necessarily council property, are properly equipped for high speed broadband. This recognises the service that voluntary and community groups provide in supporting people and liaising with public services. An example has emerged at Oxfordshire County Council, and there has been a new twist in Dorset County Council offering training for local people to become fibre engineers.

There is a strong case for more of this and we expect to see more councils flagging up their support for community centres in future announcements on network deals.

More self-care tech in healthcare

The pandemic has intensified the long building pressure on hospitals and GPs, but also enabled many to set a precedent for remote rather than face-to-face consultations, and stirred experimentation with tech that can help patients contribute to their own care from home.

Mobile apps feature prominently among the examples: one has been developed by the University of Leeds and NHS bodies in the city to help long Covid patients handle the condition; while the Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust has made the MyMaternity app available to pregnant women; and the Department for Health and Social Care is planning a pilot of a rewards app to encourage people to improve their diet and take more exercise. The key feature is that they rely on patients using their smartphones in a more proactive approach to providing information to clinicians and taking steps to improve their own health.

There are strong underlying factors that should encourage more of this: people are feeling more comfortable using mobile apps, improvements in connectivity, convenience for the patient, and the scope to ease the pressure on clinicians. The potential will grow as new solutions are integrated with clinical information systems that can be monitored by algorithms to alert the clinician when the patient has to be contacted. This is likely to become an important element of healthcare.

Cyber security in the supply chain

It has been a mantra for some time that any organisations should make the effort to ensure no cyber threats are sneaking in through their supply chains, but it is a difficult principle to apply and one that can easily slip onto the back burner.

Over the past year, however, there have been initiatives to provide a structure around the effort. The Cyber Resilience Centre for Wales has encouraged local authorities to require suppliers to provide evidence that they have taken steps to strengthen their cyber security. The Crown Commercial Service has developed the Cyber Security Services 3 dynamic purchasing system that includes supply chain analysis services. Perhaps most importantly, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has highlighted proposals for new procurement rules to ensure the public sector buys services from firms with strong cyber security.

Such measures should make it a little easier for organisations to look into the detail and focus minds on the question of whether there are weak points in the supply chains.

A renewed focus on green digital

Another long running issue that tends to move up and down the agenda has been to ensure the public sector buys and uses digital tech in a way that contributes to environmental sustainability. But the general outlook is adding a sense of urgency to the effort, with the COP26 conference and a stream of wanings about climate change having got more people talking about how to meet the net zero targets for carbon emissions.

More specific to the public sector has been the Central Digital and Data Office’s recent addition of a point on sustainability to the Technology Code of Practice. It sets out a number of practical steps, based on best practice, to make digital greener in central government, and it can provide a framework for other organisations to follow.

Public attitudes are moving towards support for sustained action on energy efficiency, reducing carbon emissions and encouraging the recycling of hardware. There should be news of plenty of new initiatives in the course of the year.

A seasonal message

So the pandemic is still with us and there is a lot of uncertainty over the outlook for the new year, but the experience of the past two years shows the UK public sector has great resilience and will continue to make a brilliant contribution to the public good.

We wish our readers a good Christmas and all the best for 2022.

Image from iStock, wacomka

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