The public sector’s digital lag: is the problem tech or mindset?

Public sector experts reveal that it’s a cultural rather than technological challenge that could be stopping leaders from making the progress they so deeply desire

“How are you going to deliver digital services in the public sector when you can’t pick up my bins?” That was the question faced in early 2017 by Martyn Wallace, the freshly minted chief digital officer for the Digital Office for Scottish Local Government. 

Initially a project set up for three years to help Scottish councils digitally transform, the project is in its seventh year and shows no sign of slowing down. “It’s never-ending,” Wallace admits. “Always one more mountain to climb.”

But back to the bins. “Do you think that’s what local government is? We just pick up your bins?” he answered. Wallace outlines the real scope – 5.5 million customers, educating 700,000 children daily, dealing with social exclusion, healthcare delivery, telecare, births, deaths and marriages – and bins. He admits that, in the eyes of the public, it is sometimes a thankless task. “We’re an easy target for the press,” he says. Not just the press, it seems. Jacob Rees-Mogg famously toured civil service departments, leaving a cheery ‘while you were out’ note on hybrid workers’ desks. 

Given that one of the positives of the pandemic has been a widespread shift to hybrid working, this seems a retrograde step. “We’ve had much more interaction with the Highlands and Islands and the Borders because I can use Teams to talk to anybody across Scotland,” Wallace insists. “Why would staff come into Edinburgh when they’re as far afield as Stonehaven, Jedburgh and Glasgow?”

Wallace concedes that hybrid working is an incentive to stay in the public sector, as is the sense of purpose from the job. But he admits that there are aspects of the role that could be improved. “Being allowed to fail. In private sector organisations the culture is to fail fast but learn from it,” he suggests. But transferring private sector mindsets to the public sector isn’t that simple. “The challenge is that we have less money and higher expectations and scrutiny and we look after the whole population. Being able to fail and learn – rather than being crucified – that culture of risk has to move,” Wallace insists. 

Improving the digital experience

It’s a challenge they must meet. In the latest 2022 Digital Trends – Public Sector in Focus report from Adobe, only 14% of respondents said their digital experience was ahead of customer expectations with more than a third (37%) admitting they were falling behind.

Neil Bacon is a senior digital strategist at Adobe. He says: “We see two chief barriers to technology investment in the public sector. Data use and skills. There’s an uneven spread of digital skills at leadership and practitioner levels. While great strides have been made in this area through the government’s GDS Academy, more needs to be done to ensure people leave education and training with the relevant and desired digital skills to hit the ground running when they join the public sector workforce.”

But it isn’t all doom and gloom. Danny Bluestone is the founder and CEO of Cyber-Duck, a digital agency that works extensively with a range of public sector departments from local councils to the NHS.

“The government has largely adopted lean and agile management frameworks to govern, support and deliver large-scale enterprise programmes and projects mimicking the private sector,” he explains. “Combined with knowledge sharing and continual improvement, the government can create a culture of innovation internally and with key suppliers.”

The Adobe research also found that 61% of staff felt their organisation lacked critical public sector digital skills such as design thinking or journey mapping. Bluestone points out that looking to the private sector may help to avoid some of the unfortunate, high-profile failures: “When government functions have tried to reinvent the wheel, spend substantial sums and only then realise it’s better to use software development kits from big techs like Apple and Android,” he says.

The differences between public and private

Wallace is at pains to point out that the public and private sectors are different beasts and notes that how technology and digital transformation are positioned in the public sector is key. He relates how robotic process automation (RPA) made it possible to speed up and improve data sharing to deal with housing and social problems, leading to improved customer satisfaction and fundamentally improving community wellbeing. “We need to reapportion staff to go out and be frontline. In the housing department, they were trying to get too much done and morale was low. Now, [with RPA] they’re getting job satisfaction.

“We have to focus on frontline digital skills and awareness of what digital is and what it isn’t. In the current climate, there’s the fear factor that whatever you’re transforming will lead to losing your job,” he adds. 

Bluestone has been party to many transformation projects. “Any organisation can have a fantastic strategy, delivery and technology. But without the right culture any programme or project will either slow down or fail. This is where models like ADKAR – awareness, desire, knowledge, ability, reinforcement – are proven change management frameworks.”

With pressures from the public, the press, internal culture and cost considerations, are purpose and a work/life balance enough to keep leaders like Wallace at the public sector coalface? “I’ve had moments wondering if I want to continue with this,” he says, but adds: “We’re so risk averse in putting our heads above the parapet and celebrating the wins because that’s not the culture we have in the public sector. We’re just doing our job. But I’m proud of my efforts, I’m proud of my team and what we do with partners across Scotland. Why wouldn’t I want to celebrate that?”