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Five things for public sector digital in 2023

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After the pandemic induced urgency of 2020-21 it has been a less frantic, although not exactly quiet, year for digital teams in the public sector.

The need to quickly develop new solutions, extend data sharing to support vulnerable people and facilitate widespread home working have all subsided while not really going away. There is also a sense of needing to build on the positives that emerged from the crisis.

There has been plenty of talk about maintaining the momentum, in terms of developing and deploying solutions at speed and harnessing and showing an appetite for risk in adopting new technology. But against this has been the exhaustion that came from the pandemic, and a sense of the need to consolidate gains and work out what will work best in the long term.

Along with this has come a new wave of challenges: the forbidding outlook for public finances; the effect of labour shortages on key public services; the surge in inflation; and the new fears for cyber security sparked by the war in Ukraine. These are all creating an environment in which digital leaders feel they have to prioritise responses to these pressures while also maintaining day-to-day operations.

It is a landscape of competing pressures, the balance of which varies between organisations, but in which there are a number of factors that are likely to be high on the agenda for all. Here are five that will attract intense attention.

Extending the boundaries of automation

Robotic process automation (RPA) is rapidly becoming a regular feature of public sector digital operations, with an increasing number of organisations using it in routine processes bound by straightforward business rules to free up staff from mundane work and raise productivity.

There has also been a gradual move into new areas, such as the Greater London Authority’s adoption of the technology for project management reporting and the provision of property information by HM Land Registry. This has been reinforced by efforts at the centre, such as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ development of its RPA centre of excellence and the programme to extend its use within NHS England.

But there are signs of a greater ambition at work, with some organisations looking to deploy intelligent automation (IA), adding artificial intelligence capabilities to RPA so it can handle less clearly structured information and deal with the context for more complex processes. This provides scope for handling clinical information in healthcare, details of personal circumstances in social care, information on supplier relationships in procurement and a range of other possibilities.

It is early days and this comes with the need to deal with ethical questions that rarely arise in the use RPA, notably in marking the points where the machine has to pass the process to a human operator. But the pressures on the public sector will demand that it looks for more processes for which it can place the burden on digital rather than human workers. This will provide a driver to look carefully at some processes that so far have been beyond the limits of automation.

Cyber security in the supply chain

Nobody doubts that the public sector is now a prime target for cyber attacks from criminals and hostile states with a will to weaken the social fabric of the UK; and there is a growing awareness that the threats are as likely to come from down the supply chain as a direct attack.

Earlier this year the National Cyber Security Centre published guidance on how to respond to the latter. More recently the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has revealed plans to extend the Network and Information Systems Regulations to managed service providers, and the Ministry of Defence has launched a fresh effort to develop a digital system for managing cyber risk in its supply chain.

The subject tends to emerge in any discussion on cyber security, and there is a wide understanding that a public authority now needs to look closely at the cyber assurance of any suppliers with whom it is exchanging information.

There are examples of some bodies requiring suppliers to show their cyber credentials at the procurement stage – as done by Swansea Council – and the Crown Commercial Service has ensured its procurement frameworks take basic cyber factors into account when accrediting suppliers.

It may be too much to expect organisations to look at the details for all their suppliers, but they will have to find robust assurance mechanisms for the latter. The debate will continue, hopefully lead to more solutions, and it will be an intrinsic element of their own cyber postures.

The digital influence of integrated care boards

While most ICBs – overseeing England’s new integrated care systems – are still finding their feet, there has to be speculation about the nature of their influence on the choice of digital systems. While NHS bodies and local authorities will continue procure systems for health and social care, they are meant to respond to the strategic priorities set out by ICBs, which raises the question of how closely those strategies will dictate the choices in procurement.

Given the federated nature of the ICSs and the distribution of areas of expertise on health and social care, ICBs may refrain from a highly prescriptive approach, while reminding their partner bodies to ensure their systems can integrate with others and fit within the strategies. But those with a strong intent may feel the need to be more precise in what is required, there could be plenty of grey areas, and variations in the approach taken in different parts of the country. There could also be some tension if the specialists are told their favoured systems are not right for the strategies.

It is also notable that the National Audit Office has identified digital and data gaps in ICSs and IT industry association techUK has set out recommendations for their use of technology.

Effective working models will evolve over time, but for the next year or so there could be some awkward dynamics in the sector.

The best balance in hybrid working

A consensus has emerged after the pandemic that most organisations are moving towards a hybrid working model, with staff spending more – although not necessarily the majority – of their time working from home. The benefits of flexibility, enabling the reduction of office space, improving job satisfaction and making it possible to hire skilled people from further afield are all benefits too strong to ignore.

It is clear that technology has developed to the point of this being possible for all, but there are still questions around the effect on how teams work together, the development of new people, how it relates to frontline services and overall productivity.

While few organisations seem intent on a complete return to the office, there are still debates about the best balance between office and home working, the rules for the latter, and how it should influence future investment strategies for technology – and the demands of cyber security.

Obviously, organisations will find the balance suitable for their own circumstances, but they will also be looking to learn from each other in the process. This is an issue on which UKAuthority has been working, in co-operation with Cisco, to produce a white paper to be published soon.

Fears of a procurement squeeze

The outlook for public sector finances is bad and is going to remain so. This is going to make the pressure for digital technology to deliver new efficiencies more intense than ever, along with the familiar demand to do more with less.

It could get worse, with the Government indicating there is more financial pain to come, and organisations could find themselves being told they don’t have the money for digital investments, even with the argument that they can ultimately produce greater savings.

Hopefully it won’t get to this situation, but don’t write off the prospect of words from the centre about the need to cut the spend. This is going to increase the pressure to develop a strong business case for any significant investment in digital, with evidence of returns not just in financial savings but better outcomes for the public and the potential to reduce future demands on services.

And the festive message

With all that in mind, don’t think too much about digital, data and technology over Christmas – unless it’s setting up a laptop that was found under the tree.

We hope you all have a good Christmas and all the best for 2023.

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