The public sector needs to deal with a series of issues to consolidate the digital benefits from the lockdown, writes writes Steve Boardman, solution director at Rackspace Technology
The UK public sector has done well on the digital front during the Covid-19 pandemic, with an accelerating pace of transformation and a rise in the standing of digital teams.
It now faces the challenge of maintaining the momentum, reaping the benefits from the emergency over the long term with a more ambitious, faster paced approach to developing services. It cannot continue to do everything as if managing a crisis, but it would be a failure if it went back to old ways of doing things in their entirety.
This raises issues that came up in a recent online round table, staged by UKAuthority and Rackspace Technology, involving around 20 digital leaders from across the public sector. They reflected a raising of expectations around internal changes and the delivery of new services, with the feeling that if it can be done quickly during the pandemic this should be the norm.
It is made possible by technology factors – such as the ability to integrate cloud services and use low code development platforms – and a change in attitudes tin favour of a less bureaucratic, less risk averse approach.
It poses questions, however, such as whether budgets will be made available to maintain the impetus. The case for investment in digital has been proven during the pandemic, with board level leaders acknowledging it is crucial. But there are complexities around the tension between capex and opex, with financial chiefs often favouring the former while cloud services, especially those operating on ‘pay as you go’, tend to fit more easily within the latter.
There is an ongoing debate about how far it is possible to go in classing this spend as capex, and it can depend on how the suppliers structure their offerings, with possibilities such as transferring annualised licences to capex.
Other complications arise from the possibilities of: agreeing a budget for cloud services with a contingency for spending extra in the event of demands that do not arise; a digital team identifying great value in a new cloud service but being unable to use it as it is not factored into any budget; and financial teams being more open to applying capex to resalable assets, which will not apply to software licences or cloud services.
Such issues are difficult to resolve and organisations will have to find formulas that work specifically for them, balancing financial constraints with the need to make more of cloud in improving their services.
There are also tensions in the shift to remote working. It was already understood that organisations are finding some staff happy to continue working from home while others are eager to get back to the office, and most are looking at a hybrid approach for the future.
But this comes with questions about how best to run hybrid meetings to ensure those in the room and online can have an equal influence; and a sense that the best ideas often emerge from informal chats outside the meeting room. They are also relevant to office politics, with a belief that being in the room is ultimately better for someone’s position in the organisation.
Another big demand will be the need to build up in-house digital skills. The debate confirmed that overall there is a shortage of the right people to understand a problem, how it relates to digital technology and find a solution, and the public sector usually struggles to match the financial incentives offered by the private sector.
There are possibilities in increasing the number of apprenticeships, creating regional digital academies and luring people to the public sector after career breaks; and there is scope for creating in-house teams in areas such as cyber security and data analytics to improve the informal sharing of experience and passing on of skills, providing more a more even capability over the long term.
Identifying these issues is a starting point to building on the successes that have emerged from the pandemic. Nobody pretends that they will be easy to resolve, they would likely create some internal tensions, and it would take a matter of years for the full benefits to emerge. They also come with a couple of underlying priorities to ensure the effort is not wasted.
Firstly, they have to fit within a broader vision of what organisations are aiming to achieve for their communities, taking in not just efficiencies and customer satisfaction but building new partnerships for the delivery of services, making communities more resilient, contributing to environmental sustainability and maintaining an ethical use of data.
Secondly, it is important to keep up the accelerated pace of decision making. It will be important to consolidate the approach of quickly bringing key people together, identifying needs and desired outcomes, prioritising steps and setting clear milestones for delivery – with an emphasis on launching services that are fit for purpose rather than adjudged to be perfect.
These steps making will be crucial to maintaining the post-pandemic pace of digital transformation in public services.
UKAuthority in partnership with Rackspace Technology has written a series of briefing notes and a white paper which are currently available for download - just complete the form.
Image from iStock, Anyaberkut