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Socitm highlights need for ‘recalibration’ of public sector digital

10/01/22

Mark Say Managing Editor

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Digital stakeholders in the public sector need to address some changing priorities in the coming year, according to public sector IT association Socitm.

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It has highlighted a number of issues in its new Public sector digital trends 2022 report, saying there are significant developments “in the spaces between different technologies”, creating a need to face up to challenges that are possibly more complex than those that are familiar.

It also considers how the outlook has been shaken up by the Covid-19 pandemic, and points towards a ‘recalibration’ as the sector tries to work out what the ‘new normal’ will look like.

Socitm’s announcement on the publication has emphasised predictions on a greater focus on interoperability, systems integration, and opportunities arising from a growth in processing power. These come with harnessing data and new tools to unlock opportunities within communities.

Report author and Socitm associate director Jos Creese said there will be three main tasks for this year: prioritising place based technology infrastructure; understanding the broader context for digital change, including building knowledge in areas such as data ethics; and developing new collaborative networks with citizens.

Need for change

These come with a stronger message within the report, that 2022 cannot just be a continuation of 2021 for the sector: there is a need for significant changes that are as much about the acceleration of emerging technologies as the effects of the pandemic.

The latter has been significant, with the report saying that CIOs in the public sector think the cultural change and acceleration of digital initiatives will not be unpicked. This comes with four key elements of a “post-Covid recalibration”: normalising new ways of working with digital infrastructure to connect employees; service design in favour of digital delivery but blended with non-digital where necessary; a recalibration of priorities, risks, investments and management methods; and a reconfiguration of strategies to match ‘digital pace’.

While the last point may seem a little vague, it relates to one of the highlighted trends in technology change, referring to the progress of the internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), cloud and 5G. The report predicts 2022 will be a turning point in which these are seen as much more powerful when interacting with each other. Bringing them together can create new possibilities for services that are efficient, with observable risk and performance and better targeted interventions, and inclusive and timely, with individuals having more control.

There are recommendations on how to approach each of the four technologies, including a more co-ordinated approach to IoT deployments and the establishment of clear principles for AI applications. The latter is especially important when the technology is used in citizen facing services and HR systems, with a need to manage the risks and provide transparency.

Another priority comes from the boom in in using apps for service delivery, which has delivered plenty of benefits but also caused some confusion with the large number of available. This threatens to fragment rather than integrate services in some areas, and to make it more difficult to manage data and deal with cyber risks.

In response, there is a need for local authorities in particular to consider how a consolidation of apps, especially for place based services, can make things easier for the public.

Visualisation potential

The report also highlights the rising importance of visualisation technologies such as virtual reality and gamification software, saying they can help to produce more empathetic design of systems that reflect real life experiences and prevent digital ‘black holes’ for service users. It points to the work of Oxfordshire County Council in using a variety of visualisation tools, including gaming to model mobility and digital twins for autonomous vehicle testing.

It conveys a key message that all public bodies should now be considering the potential of the relevant methods and tools for all aspects of service design, to better reflect citizen behaviours, needs and preferences.

Other messages reflect more familiar issues: the continuing need to review cyber security practices; the need for a national digital identity solution, as highlighted in Socitm’s recent report on the issue; the role of council technology in furthering in promoting environmental sustainability; and the need for councils to have a data strategy overseen by a chief officer.

The report also highlights the likely importance of local government digital in delivering the Government’s levelling up agenda and improving social value in public services.

Communities challenge

As part of the accompanying announcement, Socitm president Sam Smith said: “Whilst the pandemic has increased public awareness of the key role local government plays in delivery of place based services, the next step is to tackle the deep seated problems facing communities, being brave and implementing new digital approaches.”

This comes with a prediction in the report that digital disruption of public services could well accelerate over the next year. This will produce tensions, with local government facing particular problems due to receiving less report from central government than other sectors.

But there is also an emphasis on councils’ successes so far and what they can achieve, conveying that there are grounds for optimism. The underlying message is that, given a realistic chance to do so, councils can meet these digital challenges in the future.

Report available here, accompanying infographic here.

Image from iStock, Putilich

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