On the hunt for a single version of the truth

Digital leaders from public sector organisations discuss the enormous opportunities presented by data, and the biggest barriers they must overcome to get there, in a recent roundtable


Data has the power to transform the delivery of services and vastly improve outcomes for and the experience of customers. In the public sector, it holds the key to better innovation, decision-making and a more connected customer experience, whether that ‘customer’ is a citizen, patient or student. This has caused the government to publish a National Data Strategy, which sets out a vision to accelerate and futureproof the UK’s digital economy by unlocking the value of data.

To unlock that value of data in the public sector, however, there are hurdles to overcome, which were discussed at length in a roundtable discussion sponsored by specialist STEM recruiter and project services provider Real Public Sector on 24 November. Success in the private sector has long been driven by a relentless desire to keep up with consumer demands; an intensity that has traditionally been felt less in the public sector. Yet the digital expectations of younger generations are changing that, and meeting those expectations relies on a single version of the truth which has yet to be achieved. 

“Today’s generation of students are digital natives and so the expectation of how they engage with us is very different to the past,” Juan Villamil, CIO at Imperial College London, says. “To deliver a personalised, tailored service, you need quality data, simple ways of understanding it and robust data platforms. We had lots of data, but it was fragmented and broken, so it was crucial to create a proper data strategy, which we’re now delivering against.” 

Disparate, legacy systems are a commonality across public sector organisations, which makes achieving a single version of the truth much more challenging. By amplifying the need for faster data, the pandemic increased the urgency with which organisations sought to deal with their legacy infrastructure; an infrastructure that was never designed to deliver the speed of reporting and flexibility required today. It is now widely recognised that the public sector must invest in updated infrastructure to make data more accessible and usable for the citizen and the organisations within the sector themselves.

“In the early days of digital, we managed and designed our way through complex legacy systems and created something that helped the citizen, but there was a lot of hard work in the back to make that work,” says Brigid McBride, programme director, digital change at Ofsted. “Investing in legacy replacement is now critical in terms of embedding flexibility and agility into the business strategy as well as supporting digital and data strategies. You have to tell a story to decision-makers about how replacing legacy benefits the organisation.”

To realise the opportunity of data in the public sector, however, institutions must not only overcome challenges to achieve a single version of the truth within their own environment, but also across third-party relationships, especially in government. Organisations have learned that data is crucial to connecting their various departments and business units, but realising a single, seamless citizen life journey will rely on an unprecedented level of alignment and collaboration. 

A citizen’s journey does not start and end with one institution. It traverses organisations as diverse as tax, education, work and pensions, welfare, health, justice and immigration. While these areas are historically separate, with their own operational silos, citizens wish to navigate all of them in a connected manner in which handoffs are, ultimately, invisible to them. The National Data Strategy has had a positive impact in creating a common vision for this ambitious end goal, but the hard work is in bringing that strategy to life to improve the citizen life journey.

Investing in legacy replacement is now critical in terms of embedding flexibility and agility into the business strategy… You have to tell a story to decision-makers about how replacing legacy benefits the organisation

“We’re working with colleagues in other government departments to connect the data strategies where the journey traverses across those organisations,” says Paul Lodge, chief data officer at the Department for Work and Pensions. “To streamline the citizen life journey, we need to understand more about their circumstances when they arrive and make sure their transition is straightforward, reflecting changes in their circumstances without them having to provide the same information multiple times, and facilitating an experience that is easier and less stressful.” 

Though initiatives like the Government Digital Service have set a benchmark for how public sector organisations should use data and think about customer experience, some fundamental issues remain. 

One major barrier is the concept of a data strategy that is separate and discrete from a public sector organisation’s core strategy is still prevalent. The general direction of travel is towards strategies in which data goals are embedded within the core objectives – and cross-organisational strategies are beginning to emerge – but a faster pace would be welcome. 

“You need to be able to think about services and the data across organisational boundaries,” says James Freed, CIO at Health Education England. “I’m interested to see the formation of integrated care boards and integrated care systems in the health and care system which are deliberately intended to break down some of those organisational barriers and recognise that people sometimes get ill in more than one place and have care as well as health needs.”

To reach this equilibrium, public sector organisations must create a strong data culture, which is evidenced by widespread recognition that data can contribute to core outcomes and improve the customer experience. Continued separation between data strategy and business strategy indicates an absence of a data culture, though the pandemic has at least accelerated an appreciation of the need for data, digital maturity and expertise at the senior leadership level. 

Appreciation of the need for data and digital expertise, at all levels, may be higher than ever, but the biggest challenge of all is attracting the talent to provide that expertise. All sectors are suffering from a digital skills gap, but it can be even more difficult for public sector organisations which typically cannot compete with other sectors on salary demands.

That’s not to say, however, that they can’t compete in the jobs market. Salary capability aside, public sector organisations have what many businesses lack. Younger generations increasingly crave a sense of mission and purpose. Much of the best digital talent today are attracted to the personal fulfillment that can be gained through a direct, meaningful connection to citizens. Public sector organisations must understand how they can
leverage this opportunity. 

“Acquiring the talent to execute on data strategy and objectives is a challenge when there is a deficit of skills in the UK and organisations in the public and private sectors are competing for talent,” said David Elliott-Smith, director of managed services at Real Public Sector. “However, there are ways the public sector can win. We are a major supplier of STEM talent and project services, and we are dedicated to supporting public sector organisations to amplify the noble mission they are on, help their workforce planning and futureproof demand through setting up a people strategy.”

For more information, visit realstaffing.com