There are many technology predictions for the public sector at this time of year – often written by suppliers with interests not always matched by genuine public-sector IT leadership experience. Mine are set in the context of the public sector - especially local authorities – looking at pressures, constraints and priorities as much as IT opportunity.
IT legacy limits digital innovation. This includes systems, skills, policies and practices in IT and beyond IT. Even more, the limitation of capacity, capability and risk appetite in councils means that, however compelling a business case for shiny new IT, not everything can be done at once.
The complexity of local government services is a challenge too – the technology architecture of a council supporting maybe 700 services is greater than anything I’ve yet seen in the private sector, so careful planning is necessary to avoid unintended consequences from digital adoption.
Perhaps even more importantly, most IT change and innovation require cultural change. Parts of the public sector are still holding on to outdated practices to which new technology is then retrofitted – or digital programmes are developed in departmental silos (which is counter to the whole definitions of digital transformation).
All of that said, here are some key technology trends that I’d see as a focus for councils in 2018:
‘Cyber’ (horrible term!) is about public trust and service resilience, as technology dependency grows. Internal skills are key and I think we need accredited specialists in future, as well as a whole new generation of apprenticeships. But it also needs better awareness at board level and political leadership, as the risk profile of public services changes.
Nearly a decade after cloud first appeared, the public sector is still in part hesitant. But the benefits in terms of efficiency, productivity, modernisation, agility and unlocking legacy IT are so great, that all councils should review their approach to cloud adoption in 2018. It is a chance to rationalise software portfolios and to put in place intelligent policies to embrace cloud offerings, addressing concerns about security, sustainability and practicality.
Broadband, Mobile and Equality of Access
Over a decade ago universal broadband access as a right was clear. Today, mobile coverage too is a social and economic imperative. Yet many parts of the UK, urban and rural, still do not have good coverage. Much could be solved easily, with government regulation to mandate mobile providers collaborating, and BT to invest in ‘not spots’ and perhaps less in 5G coverage. In 2018 councils should prioritise this, working with industry, communities and national government.
The demand for IT skills at all levels is growing globally faster than supply. All councils need a clear digital skills strategy, including ensuring workforce diversity, if they are to exploit digital opportunity, and to be prepared to pay the going rate for new, highly sought-after skills. This includes consideration of apprenticeships, digital leadership, specialist technology skills, and wider digital literacy in communities.
Digital Implies Non-Silo Public Services
Digital delivery requires sharing platforms, processes, teams, and common functions – it’s not about ‘more or better IT’. This is uncomfortable to parts of the public sector that have built a whole infrastructure around competition and control. All councils should focus on using digital methods to enable new styles shared services across departments and with other related public services. This is not just to save money, but to increase capacity, resilience, innovation and ultimately better outcomes for citizens.
Automation, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics
This has become a fashionable trend during 2017. In practice, deep adoption of AI and robotics will take time, led by early adopters of avatars, autonomous vehicles and voice recognition systems such as Alexa. We are already seeing the encroachment of machine learning to replace professional activity and judgements, and this will slowly erode roles in Finance, IT, HR, Corporate Services, Legal, Procurement, Audit, in support teams and other areas.
Advanced Analytics and Data
All public services, are becoming data-driven, yet they often lack the skills, tools or vision to realise the potential. The key for councils is develop data intelligence to ensure services are provisioned efficiently, effectively, in timely fashion, and in ways that anticipate needs and preferences. Data linked across related public services, can support targeted intervention in a whole range of areas – troubled families, fraud, modern slavery, protection of children at risk, use of resources, democratic engagement, health, crime prevention and more. These are council priorities already.
The idea that ‘smart’ should be focused on ‘cities’ has been proved to be a supplier-lead myth. Of course, large urban areas are attractive for investment in technology, with higher returns and lower risks. But the potential for the UK as a whole to benefit through digital opportunity is enormous. Councils in 2018 should be working with industry and research institutions to maximise the potential of ‘smart’ programmes in their regions, in stimulating social and economic well-being within and beyond our cities.
Virtual Reality and 4G TV
These are going to grow in importance during 2018 as more streamed content becomes available at 4G quality. For councils high-quality streaming will be possible in areas such as training, healthcare and support, although this will go beyond 2018. VR will have a role in design and development of care services as well as support for housing and in other areas. Of course, it all depends on broadband and mobile coverage!
Bitcoin, Blockchain and cryptocurrencies
These are becoming a tempting potential investment and technology opportunity for councils, but not much for 2018 beyond planning. Councils should be very wary of investing since risk are high and ethical credentials are not always transparent. Blockchain has big potential, but it probably requires a national public service programme through GDS, in areas such as citizen identity or health and social care records management that prove the value.
Commercialisation and Digital
We’ve heard a lot in 2017 about councils becoming more commercial. This trend will continue, but care is needed to ensure a long-term sustainable role for the public sector. Being fully commercial implies new risk models, financial mechanisms, marketing and sales, product development, pricing strategies and ability to compete on the open market. Above it depends on true digital operation and councils need to sort their digital infrastructure out in 2018 before embarking on commercialisation.
A Word About ‘Government as a Platform’
Please can we stop using this phrase? The concept is good, but the practice in a complex in a diverse environment such as local government and needs translation to be meaningful it needs translation. For example, defining the common components that would be brought together in a council - apps, transactions, access, security infrastructure, identity and verification, communications and social media tools. What would be really fantastic for 2018 would be if GDS, using all its resources and influence across Whitehall, to develop a universal solution to citizen and public-sector employee identity, for health, social care and in all areas requiring secure and robust assurance.
Jos Creese has over 30 years’ experience as a CIO and CDO across the public sector and is now a digital analyst, researcher and consultant, with many clients across public and private sectors. He is a past president of both the BCS and of Socitm.