Industry voice: Welsh public servants face some challenges in adopting digital tech, but there is cause for optimism, writes Helena Zaum, CityNext lead at Microsoft UK
Public authorities in Wales are harbouring ambitions akin to those throughout the UK to build smart places in urban and rural environments. Many see the potential in using digital technologies to create connected communities, and they have opportunities that can often be found in smaller countries to take a coherent national vision to reality.
But there are also challenges unique to the country, as became clear at the recent Smart Wales and Connected Cymru conference, staged in April by Microsoft and UKAuthority. It brought together representatives from the Welsh Government, police forces, health boards and urban and rural councils, and highlighted issues causing concern and the reasons for optimism.
Wales has the advantage often attributed to small countries in pulling together a nationwide strategy for digital solutions. Its size and the limited number of organisations can make it easier - at least in theory - to bring key officials together, establish a sense of shared purpose and come to agreement on the ground rules.
This is supported by a political machinery from devolution that can encourage organisations to work together, with a tighter relationship between the central government, local authorities and health boards. The governance is there to promote cross-agency working, and an initiative such as the creation of the Welsh Community Care Information System (WCCIS) highlights the opportunities.
There is also a sense that the infrastructure is in a good place, with the Public Sector Broadband Aggregation programme having provided a country-wide managed network that is connecting 123 organisations (as of May 2018) including councils, blue light services, health boards and higher and further education bodies.
But it became clear from event delegates that other factors – some local, some prevailing around the UK – have been hindering efforts to establish a clear direction. They include a view among many that there is not yet a sufficient dialogue between different elements of the public sector: there is collaboration, but not yet on the scale to produce a tipping point in the outlook.
Wales’ bilingual status can also be a problem in digital communications; the Welsh language has equal status with English but many public servants do not have a strong grasp of it and digital translation services are not yet up to handling speech.
Some see a tendency towards insularity within authorities. This is holding back efforts to build collaboration between councils, health boards and police forces, and the potential for more common procurement of technology. It needs senior officials to be more willing to look beyond their own authorities in laying plans.
Then come familiar problems with IT teams being under pressure to fulfil operational responsibilities and having little time for initiatives around innovation, which can lead to them being seen as blockers of change. Further barriers emerge in a lack of interoperability in legacy systems, and authorities’ different objectives in promoting ‘wellbeing’.
But there are encouraging signs: an increasing take-up of commodity digital systems that can support interoperability; organisations becoming more aware of the value of the data they hold; and the national roll out of the WCCIS providing an example of central procurement of a system to promote collaboration.
There is also the sense that the public is raising its expectations around what can be done with technology, and this will feed into a political imperative to push through change.
A priority for making this happen is the need for investment in IT teams to equip them with more strategic skills. This can encourage them to be more active in redesigning services, showing how digital can improve citizen experiences, and exert more influence with board level executives.
There is also a possibility to exploit an existing asset in the form of Office 365, which is already widely used and can provide a platform for communication and collaboration networks between Welsh authorities. It provides the scope for a technical federation that can complement the political structure and underpin a surge in collaborative working.
Wales has a great opportunity to harness these factors and build a more coordinated approach to delivering services – and to lay the foundations for connected communities across the country.
For a more detailed appraisal of the event and the prospects for a Smart Wales and Connected Cymru, download the full briefing paper from here:
Meanwhile you can visit the event hub here to watch the presentation videos or watch the overview video below: