How COVID-19 is kickstarting change in the public sector

The public sector has been traditionally slow to adopt emerging technologies, but the coronavirus pandemic has forced a number of areas to adapt. Here are five recent examples of how COVID-19 has accelerated digital transformation efforts across the public sector


Boxing at Bristol City Academy; Sport England has sped up grant awards to manage the influx of applications amid the crisis

1. Speeding up grant awards through process automation

Working with IT services company Atos, Sport England introduced a full bespoke digital process for managing emergency grant assessments. This public sector digital transformation solution meant it could manage the influx of applications from sports clubs in financial distress due to the coronavirus pandemic and become the first National Lottery-funded organisation to start distributing grants.

In just 37 days, Sport England processed 11,044 applications for money from its emergency fund, making 7,500 emergency support awards to clubs and grassroots groups totalling £27.5 million.

“In response to the urgency of the situation, we quickly rolled out a digital process developed by Atos that enabled us to process applications far more quickly than would have been possible under a ‘business as usual’ scenario,” says Mike Diaper, executive director at Sport England.

“COVID-19 has presented new challenges for all parts of the economy with swift mobilisation required to respond to the new conditions that we have all been operating under. This new digital approach allowed us to allocate grants to assessors and deploy automation for review of completed assessments and generation of awards.”

2. Protecting medics and patients with mixed-reality headsets

COVID-driven public sector digital transformation can be seen in action on the NHS frontline. Staff at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust are wearing Microsoft HoloLens headsets while working in high-risk areas at some of London’s busiest hospitals.

Using Microsoft Teams and remote assist technology, secure live video is fed to a computer screen in a nearby room so healthcare teams can see everything the doctor treating COVID-19 patients can see, while remaining at a safe distance. Imperial says HoloLens has delivered a fall of up to 83 per cent in the time staff spend in high-risk areas, while also significantly reducing the use of personal protective equipment.

Rather than putting users in a fully computer-generated world, like virtual reality, HoloLens allows them to place 3D digital models in the room alongside them and interact with them using gestures, gaze and voice. Doctors wearing the headsets can hold hands-free video calls with colleagues and experts anywhere in the world. Medical notes and X-rays can also be placed alongside the call in the wearer’s field of view, all while interacting with patients.

3. Digital service for the vulnerable

Unitary authority Buckinghamshire Council only officially came into being during the pandemic, on April 1. An operational redesign for its creation connected IT, human resources and financial services via ServiceNow’s cloud-based platform.

COVID-19 kickstarted public sector digital transformation to protect vulnerable citizens asked to shield and support them with new, critical services.

ServiceNow partner Unifii and Buckinghamshire’s IT team integrated ServiceNow and the council’s online customer service system, going from six data fields in a spreadsheet to 90-plus fields of essential information managed and updated in real time.

This solved real-world problems caused by the pandemic, such as co-ordinating food parcels, delivering medicines and providing practical support, including dog-walking and arranging friendship calls for those in isolation. The platform is used for everything from ordering personal protective equipment to checking whether a vulnerable person has enough food or a patient’s prescription has been collected.

“We have an accurate, single source of truth for all the data we are collecting, with real-time dashboards, which means no vulnerable person should ever be overlooked,” says Tony Ellis, service director of ICT at Buckinghamshire Council.

4. Employees take a digital transformation journey

By delivering in five days an IT project that should have taken eight weeks, HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) pivoted from being largely office based to supporting upwards of 50,000 employees connected remotely. HMRC built a new remote access working platform able to handle much greater numbers. But as lockdown loomed it faced the challenge of rapidly packaging, testing and deploying software to more than 60,000 devices.

We quickly rolled out a digital process that enabled us to process applications far more quickly than would have been possible under a ‘business as usual’ scenario

Once the software was released, it took less than 48 hours to get the majority of HMRC employees connected from home, with IT partners also able to access the new platform. The result was a service that has run with almost no interruption. Without it, HMRC employees could not have worked from kitchen tables and spare bedrooms to deliver the Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s COVID-19 relief packages.

“We worked round the clock and the team was incredibly focused on getting the job done, rewriting parts of our approach to deliver change as we went,” says HMRC head of enterprise platform services Maurice Mattholie. “We’ve enabled new ways of working for our employees and are consolidating what we’ve learnt about how the organisation has adapted to change. It’s a big opportunity to continue to improve our ways of working.”

5. Assessing a wave of care innovation

The NHSX unit brings together teams from the Department of Health and Social Care, NHS England and NHS Improvement to drive the digital transformation of care. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, it launched Techforce19, a competition calling for innovations to support the elderly, vulnerable and self-isolating during the pandemic, offering government funding of up to £25,000 to put potential solutions to the test.

Between March 23 and April 3, the challenge received more than 1,600 applications. On April 24, NHSX announced it had whittled these down to 18 public sector digital transformation solutions to be assessed more thoroughly.

Among the solutions NHSX is looking at are Virti, which couples virtual and augmented reality with artificial intelligence to deliver training and patient education; Simply Do, a virtual community for self-isolating medical professionals, designed to harness their expertise as a think tank in the fight against COVID-19; Aparito, focused primarily on patients with rare diseases, which uses remote-monitoring technology to gather patient-generated data outside hospital via videos, wearable technology, photos and text; and Feebris, an app to help identify health risks and deterioration among the elderly.