Legacy infrastructure and outmoded ways of thinking can trip up digital transformation projects in the public sector
Private sector organisations that began digital transformation before the coronavirus pandemic suffocated business as usual were equipped and agile enough to revamp their strategies and operations, and thrive despite the chaos.
And laggards quickly realised that to keep pace they needed to invest in digital technologies and accelerate digital transformation plans. Meanwhile, those operating in the public sector, lumbered with legacy systems unsuitable for the digital age, looked on with envy, twiddling their thumbs.
A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but it is a truism that the public sector is notoriously slow to embrace technology. There is a pervading sense, though, that COVID has necessitated a levelling-up across the sector.
Given the mass shift to remote working, the strain on public services, especially the National Health Service, and the immediate need to streamline operations and reduce spending while improving efficiencies, digital transformation is critical. As private sector business leaders can attest, change management is paramount when deploying new technologies and ways of working.
While there is great urgency for speedy improvement, it’s appropriate to acknowledge digital adoption within the UK public sector is well behind other countries. Johnny Hugill, head of research at PUBLIC, a govtech venture firm, notes that although many public services have been moved online, to http://www.gov.uk, the harmonisation of digital services has much ground to make up. For instance, he says, around 60 per cent of citizens fill out online forms to public authorities here, while digital front-runners such as Denmark, Norway, Estonia and South Korea enjoy rates of up to 80 per cent.
Constrained by legacy infrastructure
The coronavirus fallout served to expose the UK public sector’s woeful lack of readiness to operate in the digital era. Indeed, a meagre 6 per cent of public sector workers said they were “extremely prepared for the pandemic”, according to research published in mid-November by Pure Storage, a global data storage solutions firm.
More than two-thirds (67 per cent) responded that “legacy infrastructure is holding up digital transformation progress”. This hindrance leads to “increased operational costs, reduced efficiency, and reduced operational agility”, says Shaun Collings, Pure Storage’s director of public sector in the UK.
The organisation’s research suggests eight out of 10 public sector workers believe agile methodologies and design-thinking are more important now than before the pandemic. “Clearly, many are constrained by legacy infrastructure,” says Collings. “The challenges and upheaval that public sector organisations have been faced with should act as a catalyst for reviews of supporting infrastructure and consideration of what is needed for the future.”
This advice is supported by new data from SAP, which indicates that 28 per cent of UK civil servants say they still lack adequate IT systems to support remote working. Leila Romane, the enterprise software provider’s head of SuccessFactors in the UK and Ireland, says: “Public sector organisations often operate independently and many are burdened by old and siloed technology infrastructure, which has made digital innovation more challenging.
“In the private sector, however, technology is increasingly seen as a tool to drive efficiencies by sharing data across departments and geographies.” Romane urges public sector organisations to be more collaborative, digitally focused and flexible, not least because they will otherwise find it harder to attract and retain top young talent, she warns.
Collaboration with suitable tech partners is vital
While public sector leaders may realise the need, and show a willingness to upgrade their digital capabilities, there are, frustratingly, many hurdles to overcome. Professor Julie Hodges of Durham Business School lists them. Of the many barriers, budget constraints and legacy infrastructure is a big one. Lack of leadership and vision also ranks highly, as does a reluctance to change among managers and frontline staff. Possibly most limiting is a culture that does not support transformational change, says Hodges.
PUBLIC’s Hugill agrees. “Together, culture, skills and practice form a fairly significant stumbling block to getting the public sector on board with projects,” he says, making the case that tech companies and startups should be considered over traditional partners that might not be best placed to drive digital adoption.
“Public sector officials have fallen into a routine of ‘this is how we’ve always done it’ when choosing preferred suppliers. The truth is that these suppliers were often chosen because they were good at what they did 30 years ago, but then became better at winning contracts than they were at innovating.”
Culture, skills and practice form a fairly significant stumbling block to getting the public sector on board with projects
Thankfully, there is a growing list of case studies where public sector bodies have teamed up with tech organisations to great effect. For instance, the North East Ambulance Service (NEAS), a completely mobile and essential frontline organisation with 2,500 staff covering 32,000 square miles, uses Workplace from Facebook’s communication platform to enable employees to connect and communicate better with each other.
“When the pandemic hit, I wanted a safe and secure space for staff to ask questions, challenge each other, share stories and help us build a stronger team and supportive culture,” says Helen Ray, chief executive of NEAS. “Workplace has helped us move away from having conversations behind closed doors to more openness and transparency. The social media platform has helped to bring us closer together and instil a sense of belonging.”
The last word of advice for public sector leaders seeking to navigate their digital transformation journey, which once started should never stop, comes from Romane at SAP. “To drive change in any organisation, leaders need to first listen to their employees, especially those who are on the frontline,” she says. “Then empower them with the tools and training to manage the change effectively and efficiently. Finally, create a mechanism for them to collaborate and feedback any learnings about their experiences.”
This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Public Sector Technology report in December 2020