How can the public sector overcome obstacles to digital transformation?

Greater digital literacy – especially at leadership level – and more collaboration and knowledge sharing, even with private sector partners, are all vital, according to a roundtable of experts
Doctor Using Digital Tablet In Hospital

Those seeking an example of the ramifications of a public sector organisation unable to evolve quickly enough need to look no further than the Legal Aid Agency, part of the Ministry of Justice. On 10 October 2022, when 57% of criminal barristers voted to end their long-running strike action after the government offered a 15% pay rise, Esther O’Sullivan sighed with relief.

The Legal Aid Agency’s head of digital understood the lawyers’ frustrations. “The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) went on strike because it wanted more money, not unreasonably,” she says. “But one of the reasons they were unhappy was the length of time it would take to make the changes to existing cases already going through. All of them are on legacy technologies – some are 20 years old.” 

O’Sullivan explains that given the complexity of the cases and being burdened by old systems and ways of working, upgrading to digital processes would require going through “millions of lines of code” to make the necessary changes. “We estimate that will take two years,” she continues. “To modernise the system, I need more people with different [digital] skills. So it’s a vicious circle until something breaks. In fact, the CBA has done me a favour because more people now realise we need to accelerate the upgrading of these legacy systems.”

Vaughan Lewis, regional medical director and chief clinical information officer for NHS England in the South East, sympathises. “There remain material challenges to the digitalisation of healthcare,” he says. “Despite strong progress, we are still some years behind the commercial sector.” 

The response to the pandemic resulted in a step change, for example with remote patient monitoring, but some clinicians remain understandably cautious about fully embracing digital technologies, says Lewis. Cross-sector data sharing needs to be addressed to enable progress and innovation, he adds.

Getting training and data sharing right

“There is a very reasonable assumption by patients that their GP records are available to clinicians in the emergency departments, and that these records ‘follow them’ to other parts of the hospital,” Lewis says. However, this currently doesn’t happen consistently and duplicated paper records are still in widespread use. “Collecting and aligning data across organisations and information governance are priority issues.”

This point chimes with O’Sullivan. “If we want to interact and use data interoperably, we need a standard data schema,” she says. “I’m trying to share data across government departments, and it’s increasingly difficult. At the moment, we get charged a lot of money for data by other government departments, even though we are trying to deliver the same projects. It’s ridiculous. Standardising data and making it discoverable would be amazing, but it is a massive job requiring leadership and vision.”

Lewis lists other challenges for the digital agenda. “Infrastructure in an organisation as big as the NHS, one of the largest employers in the world, is important to get right,” he says. “We mustn’t underestimate the challenge of furnishing all NHS staff [with digital tools] and getting this right will require training, change management and has significant financial implications.”

Karl Hoods, chief digital and information officer at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), is more upbeat, having recently completed a five-year infrastructure shift to the cloud. “We have no legacy data centres and very little by way of legacy applications,” he says. In his role, Hoods delivers digital and technology services to 12,500 users across eight organisations. “Our biggest challenge is managing demand.” To ease the load, he plans to develop a self-service platform that enables users to access data and frameworks to spur innovation.

And despite being formed in 1854, the Met Office is also making impressive progress on its digital transformation journey, according to chief technology officer Richard Bevan. Fittingly, the national weather service aims to be fully in the cloud and is on its way towards achieving this goal. 

Seven years ago, the Met Office purchased one of the world’s top 20 supercomputers. This has significantly helped modernisation. “It gives us a massive boost in capacity and allows us to bring forward some exciting science and improvements in our weather and climate forecasting capabilities,” Bevan says. 

Bridging the skills gap

However, Bevan acknowledges that a lack of talent is generally halting progress across the public sector. Indeed, Lloyds Bank’s Essential Digital Skills Report 2021 suggested only 58% of public sector employees have the requisite digital skills.

The Met Office leans on technology partners to bridge that skills gap. And while automation and low-code and no-code solutions can compensate for talent shortcomings, Bevan raises concerns that their overuse could lead to issues down the line. “There is a massive opportunity [with digital innovation], and that comes with digital literacy and skills,” he says. “But equally, there’s the care and attention we need to wrap around it to ensure the right level of governance.”

O’Sullivan argues a lack of data literacy at the highest level, coupled with an unwillingness to invite those with digital know-how to the table, is causing problems. “You don’t get digital professionals at some important decision-making points,” she says. “When asking ‘what’s the problem we are trying to solve?’, you need to understand how digital tools can deliver a solution. I strongly feel that we don’t let digital people have an equal view to some of the other functions, and opportunities are being missed.”

Similarly, Hoods urges other public sector leaders to focus on achievable goals and break down the long-term vision for technology programmes. “We’ve got to overcome the innate inertia inside organisations. Yes, the tech is sometimes tricky, but the problem is people. So often, leaders set a North Star [for digital transformation] but try and solve it in one go. The pace of changing technology, let alone the challenges of attracting and retaining digital staff, means that you’re going to need to change course.”

Encouraging greater inter-sector collaboration

Hoods also has a role as the senior responsible owner (SRO) for the cross-government technology interoperability programme. Wearing his SRO hat, he encourages public sector organisations to share knowledge and challenges. This will help produce data standards and blueprints to improve inter-sector collaboration. 

“Eventually, we want to get to the stage where we’re sharing applications and services,” he says. Hoods is working on a three-layer framework for technology delivery and sharing across the public sector. Layer one is a common approach and set of standards for utility services (such as email and documentation). Layer two is an approach for common services (such as grants and case management), and the final layer is bespoke for services unique to the particular organisation or sub-sector.

Kam Patel, managing director public sector at ServiceNow, a global firm that offers a cloud-based platform and solutions to help companies deliver and manage digital workflows, applauds this approach. There are quick, small-scale wins to be scored, for instance, by simplifying processes through automation. “We’re working with an NHS trust where recruitment onboarding time is 79 days from the job offer,” he says. “We’re reducing that to less than four days by decreasing the 71-step process to 18 steps.”

Finally, Patel stresses the importance of trusted tech partners accelerating public sector innovation. “You can’t solve these things individually, you have to leverage private sector companies investing in research and development, and tech companies with a global reach and expert knowledge,” he says. “Technology is an enabler, but people and processes are the keys to progress. Hopefully, we can solve these big challenges together.”

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