Out of necessity, public bodies dialled up their digital services during the pandemic, but now is a pivotal moment to consider how to achieve a joined-up, secure, frictionless citizen experience
When considering the rapid and radical shift to digital services in the public sector during the coronavirus crisis, Ernest Hemingway’s line from The Sun Also Rises of bankruptcy happening “gradually, then suddenly” comes to mind. In this case, though, the prognosis is somewhat more optimistic.
The hurried but necessary jump into the digital era has enabled people to be empowered and enriched by data-driven public services. Now the leap has been made, the direction of travel is clear. However, there is still work to be done before achieving a connected, frictionless digital experience that benefits the state and its citizens.
“Data-driven, smart digital technologies have provided crucial support to public bodies through the pandemic, but they’ve also allowed our under-pressure services to become smarter and more responsive to our needs as citizens,” says Steve Thorn, executive director at Civica, whose software helps sustain and enhance public services around the world.
“For some public services, the digital journey was already well underway, and the pandemic catalysed this journey. For others, such as our schools, the pandemic required a more fundamental change, with face-to-face teaching giving way to online classrooms.”
Thorn singles out the track and trace applications and vaccination certificates as “prime examples of the power of data-driven, smart technologies to deliver better outcomes for citizens,” and says that more outstanding capabilities are within reach. But, he warns, the government must take its next steps carefully.
“Public bodies across Britain and the rest of the world already sit on rich seams of data, which are growing by the day as our society becomes more digitised,” he says. “Raw data is, though, of little value. Data must be collected, managed, used and shared effectively if it is to deliver any real benefits.”
Standards, skills and sharing
To better navigate the route ahead, with the ultimate goal of providing a connected, frictionless customer experience to citizens, Civica works with the public sector on what it calls the three ‘Ss’ – namely standards, skills and sharing.
Thorn says: “Any public body, be it a parish council or Whitehall department, must ensure that it has robust standards in place for managing data, the right people with the right skills to use that data and finally, processes in place to share data safely and effectively, so it is it is delivering the best outcomes for the greater number of people.”
Andrew Hood, chief executive of Edinburgh-based analytics consultancy Lynchpin, agrees that now is a good time for the public sector to reflect on the good and the bad digital offerings throughout the coronavirus crisis. He sees great potential in Internet of Things (IoT) technology but similarly urges caution. “The pandemic has surfaced a lot of the practical opportunities and threats around data sharing and IoT in obvious terms when viewed through the lens of things like contact tracing apps and digital vaccine passports,” Hood says.
For some public services, the digital journey was already well underway, and the pandemic catalysed this journey. For others, such as our schools, the pandemic required a more fundamental change, with face-to-face teaching giving way to online classrooms
He points to the different strategies taken by the UK’s four nations in terms of deploying open source versus proprietary solutions. “There is potentially much to learn from what has worked well and less well when considering other similar applications outside of the pandemic,” he says.
“Whether to centralise or decentralise how data is shared across millions of devices became a very key consideration for contact-tracing apps. How [do we] achieve enough sharing to enable the outcome of alerting those that had been nearby others without creating Minority Report-style databases of the movements of the entire population?”
The software robot revolution
For David Burrows, public sector industries leader at UiPath, a robotic process automation dollar unicorn, the benefits of the public sector doubling down on automation and IoT technologies to create a more streamlined physical service for citizens – for example, with smart roads, touch-fre metering and much more – are compelling.
Further, with the UK effectively gaining data sovereignty post-Brexit, the government is perfectly positioned to speed ahead of other European nations if all key stakeholders use the exact strategy roadmap and collaborate.
But to improve citizens’ experiences and public services, alike, and to make use of better infrastructure, it comes back to managing data. “Automation is one tool being used by UK government to achieve the frictionless digital experience needed to improve public services and more effectively serve citizens,” says Burrows. “As software robots can handle huge volumes of data more quickly and efficiently than humans can, it can significantly streamline back-office activity and reduce the risk of administrative bottlenecks.”
He points to the recent work UiPath has done with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ National Licencing and Permitting Service for water abstraction – taking water from an underground or surface source, such as a river, stream or canal. “Once the team has made the technical expert decision on whether a licence should be issued or rejected, there is significant administration to be done to inform the applicant and to update internal and external consultees and the IT system,” says Burrows.
Now, software robots can handle this admin work, cutting the non-decision-making admin down from 65 minutes per transaction to just shy of seven minutes. “The result,” he says, “is that citizens can have their licenses in a fraction of the time, all while public servants can concentrate on more valuable work.”
Looking further ahead, Burrows adds: “With some 22% of government infrastructure decision makers recently telling Forrester that their departments will implement RPA in some shape or form by the end of this year, there is no doubt that automation will continue to play a significant role in government customer strategy.”
Also scanning the horizon and hoping for more joined-up public services and tools that will enrich the lives of citizens, is Thorn. “The pandemic has provided many great examples of how digital technologies can solve individual challenges – be that supporting homeschooling or allowing GPs to interact with patients at a distance. But digital transformation is more than solutions to individual problems.”
Offering a final word of advice, he adds: “Digital transformation is a wider journey towards a future where our public services are ultimately better able to anticipate and respond to our changing needs as citizens and as a society.”
And, as encouraging as the progress that has been made in the last two years especially has been, we are at a pivotal moment. As such, the potential of connected public services is likely to be realised gradually, not suddenly – and that’s no bad thing.
This article, sponsored by Vonage, was first published on Raconteur in December 2021