Public sector of the future: embracing the cloud

The cloud has transformed the way in which businesses work, but all too often public bodies have lagged behind those in the commercial sector in benefiting from this technology.

“The public sector has always been cautious about new technology – traditionally no one has wanted to be first and to take a risk,” says Justin List, head of public sector at Box, a cloud content management platform that solves what it calls “simple and complex challenges” from sharing and accessing files on mobile devices to sophisticated business processes such as data governance, work flow and document retention.

Recognised as a visionary in cloud content management, the company is working with an increasing number of public sector organisations that are looking to digitise their operations and garner true value from their content.

However, a growing number of public sector organisations are demonstrating how innovations such as mobile-first portals, user-centred journeys, machine-learning and other potentially disruptive technology can deliver practical improvements to the services used by millions of people.

“It’s partly because budgets are being cut and forward-thinking public sector organisations are looking for new solutions,” says Mr List. More stringent regulation and growing demand for services are also prompting more of them to change their business model.

“It’s often something as simple as saving time,” he says. “I was talking to a cardiologist who was describing how, until recently, he had to download images from his computer on to a USB stick and then transfer them manually to a colleague in the US for a second opinion.  Now, with a cloud based system they can share it immediately. Imagine what every doctor could accomplish by saving this time.”

Nearer to home, the London Borough of Lewisham’s LoveLewisham web and mobile apps, for instance, enable residents to report and manage a range of environmental issues, such as graffiti and fly tipping by taking a photograph and submitting it electronically. The app has enabled the borough to reduce graffiti by nearly three quarters and incidents of fly tipping by more than half.

Meanwhile, healthcare organisations are using wearable technology to monitor patients, for example Parkinson’s sufferers. Here a sensor can be embedded into a medicine dispenser to track if and when medication has been taken, via the internet of things (IoT). AstraZeneca uses Box’s content-management and collaboration platform across thousands of employees in more than 100 countries to improve collaboration around therapy development, saving time and money, and supporting research and development.

Budgets are being cut and forward-thinking public sector organisations are looking for new solutions

In September, London’s Metropolitan Police chose Box to empower its teams to work in smarter ways to fight crime. This includes the provision of a central online location for CCTV footage, making it easier to search and share valuable evidence without the need for Met employees to travel to local authorities or manage physical media such as DVDs or USBs.

“By choosing Box, we’re transforming how we access content across the force, making us much more effective and efficient, which is absolutely critical when working on the frontline of law enforcement,” says Angus McCallum, Metropolitan Police chief information officer.

The initially slow take-up of the cloud and other technologies by the public sector has been understandable given the particular challenges that it faces and the responsibilities it bears.

Security is a major concern. Public sector organisations contain vast amounts of valuable and sensitive data, which means they’re particularly attractive to cyber criminals. In February, a Freedom of Information request revealed that nearly all NHS trusts have suffered ransomware attacks. One trust was hit 19 times in 12 months.

However, as Mr List points out, most of these threats can be neutralised with good “cloud hygiene”, and effective e-mail and web protocols. For example, as dialysis machines or pacemakers are increasingly connected to the hospital network via IoT technology, the use of proper end-to-end encryption can help guard against cyber attacks. Enterprise cloud providers such as Box frequently offer much better security than legacy on-premise systems, reducing the risk of malware, ransomware and accidental leaks.

Half of the rapidly increasing public sector data breaches that took place in 2016 were due to human error, according to the Public Sector Data and Information Security Survey. “The Information Commissioner’s Office has been very aggressive when it comes to publicising examples of security breaches and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which comes into force next year, will make the situation ten times more critical,” says Mr List.

“To avoid this, public sector chief information officers need to ensure they’re asking the right questions of a cloud partner before they sign with them,” he says. “Do they, for instance, offer multi-layered security to protect documents, while providing project and department leaders with centralised control and rights management over information?”

As a specialist at the cutting edge of cloud content management, Box is using machine-learning to help clients manage their documents more effectively, something that Mr List sees as developing rapidly over the next few years. “Our machine-learning technology can help transcribe video, for instance, manage metadata and read through documents to classify their security rating automatically, something that’s essential for the arrival of GDPR.”

Like commercial organisations, the public sector is realising that as the rate of technological change increases, it’s no longer feasible to test a product for proof of concept before rolling it out over a number of years.

“It’ll be obsolete by then. Today you need to be agile,” says Mr List. “We’re finding that, like the private sector, public bodies are starting to appreciate the fact that these innovations are paid for from revenue rather than requiring capital expenditure. The era of ownership is over. Services as well as products will be rented or leased and changed as required.”

As well as improving efficiency and security more and more, public sector organisations realise their future involves delivering services through technology. “Like most people, I increasingly expect to access public services as easily and efficiently as I do Amazon and Uber,” says Mr List. “This technology makes them more responsive, accessible and cost effective.”

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