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The next opportunities and challenges in digital transformation

29/07/21

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The public sector faces a changing landscape that requires an intelligent use of cloud services, writes Andrew Puddephatt, director UK public sector at Nutanix

Coping with the Covid-19 pandemic has been the dominant force in public sector digital efforts over the past 18 months, but as the pressure eases minds are now able to focus again on long term transformation.

Digital leaders are identifying the next stage of opportunities, but also becoming aware of challenges to overcome, often with one potential benefit closely related to a significant problem, and an intelligent use of cloud services is going to provide a core element of how they deal with the issues.

Some came to the fore in a recent UKA Live discussion I shared with: Bobby Mulheir, assistant director of customer experience, digital and ICT at Bracknell Forest Borough Council; Geoff Connell, director of IMT and chief digital officer of Norfolk County Council; Ian Bell, chief executive of the Police Digital Service; and UKAuthority publisher Helen Olsen Bedford.

It reflected the impressions we have gained at Nutanix from our conversations with public sector organisations, one of the strongest being that the digital contribution to environmental sustainability is now a priority.

On one hand, it is possible to find relatively quick wins. We have seen public authorities reducing their on-premise energy usage through a move to hybrid cloud, one example being Birmingham City Council shrinking its data centre from 72 racks to eight.

But the demands are extending from the need to look for energy-efficient solutions to ensuring that suppliers are also taking the relevant steps. In response, the hyperscale cloud providers can make a significant contribution with data centres that minimise their use of energy, and help organisations develop strategies for reductions in carbon emissions.

The discussion brought out elements of the overall effort, including the role of digital in supporting efficient heating systems, how the internet of things can support the local environment, and the potential to save more energy through shared data platforms. There is still a lot to be discovered but also an optimistic mood that points to fast progress in the next few years.

Flexibility and interoperability

A second major point is the need to maintain long term flexibility in the shift to using cloud. Organisations have to ensure the interoperability of workloads and applications that sit on different clouds or on-premise, with the ability to move them from one to the other as demands change and new technology options emerge.

While the benefits of hyperscalers’ offerings are widely recognised, there is also a rising caution around making heavy long term commitments that could restrict the flexibility. There has been talk about cloud becoming the new outsourcing, referencing the long term IT contracts of 10-20 years ago that left some organisations unable to respond to new opportunities.

To avoid this public sector bodies need to engage with suppliers to ensure the interoperability of cloud services, and that the commercial models do not lead them into a new version of vendor lock-in.

This relates to a third major point, the need to provide scope for innovation in developing new public service solutions while managing finances. There is something of a tension between this and the drive to keep down costs by a wider use of procurement frameworks, and a sense that procurement teams are often more comfortable with established approaches that require either commodity solutions or detailed specifications before going to market.

From a supplier perspective this can be frustrating, as they are asked to bring innovation to the market but find limitations in the tender process and few opportunities for soft market testing.

Talking and testing

It is a difficult issue to resolve, but there is a need for the right calls on when a framework can be used, and for more scope for conversations between public authorities and suppliers before a procurement begins. Talking about a requirement and soft market testing, although it takes time, can help in the development of new solutions and strengthen the understanding of the buying organisation. Sometimes it can help to step outside of the formal procurement process; and a big challenge is to incorporate these conversations within it.

This relates to another big issue, that everybody expects a tightening of public sector budgets as the Government begins to reduce the debt incurred during the pandemic, and that in some areas they could take a different form. Dylan Roberts pointed out that integrated care partnerships will come onto a statutory footing next year, that money will go their way, but there are plenty of unknowns about how budgeting across systems and places will be managed.

Despite this there will be pressure on digital teams to help reduce the resultant burdens on services, and while this is a cause for concern it is also encouraging a view that they could win larger shares of spending within their organisations.

Other issues highlighted by the discussion included the need to build digital skills when the prospects for public sector pay are bleak, the need to bridge the digital divide in communities, and the pressure to move away from inefficient legacy infrastructure.

There is also a big opportunity in increasing data sharing between organisations – the benefits of which have clear to see during the pandemic – but this will require strong governance arrangements and efforts to ensure the data is of high quality.

It is an exciting time, making some heavy demands on public sector digital but also opening up great opportunities to take services into a new age. A flexible approach to using cloud services, supported by the right procurement strategies and expert partners, is going to play an important role in fulfilling the promise.

Image from iStock, kieferpix

UKAuthority's Inform research team has produced a briefing note on the full discussion - download below to read more:

Download the UKAuthority & Nutanix briefing note: New demands in public sector digital transformation

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