The positive legacy of a crisis

Government departments have undergone rapid transformation over the course of the pandemic, which could lead to more citizen-centric services

Protecting the public from Covid-19 is a necessity for the UK government, and as history shows, necessity is the mother of invention. Keeping people safe has required fresh thinking, greater collaboration and increased funding for government agencies tasked with tackling the pandemic. In short, the Covid crisis has proved that the public sector can innovate and deliver just as quickly and successfully as the private sector. But can it still do so once the urgency of the pandemic period fades away?

It’s a big question that can only be fully answered in time. However, there are clear lessons from the pandemic that could help to drive further change in the public sector. For instance, the need to act quickly helped to override the risk aversion that sometimes constrains public sector innovation. Existing resources were rapidly ramped up and decisions were made faster. This meant projects were delivered in timeframes that would have seemed impossible pre-pandemic.

One example is Spotlight, a Cabinet Office due diligence tool built on the Salesforce platform that checks grant applications and accelerates approval processes. It helped to unlock massive efficiency gains at a time when grants were key to the survival of countless companies and charities across the UK. “We’d [already] put the base technology in place, but very quickly it had to go from being a good idea with proven high-level concepts to distributing billions of pounds worth of grants,” says Simon Collinson, head of UK public sector at Salesforce.

We were able to move from early discussions at the beginning of December to a proposal in the middle of December to having the Irish government up and running on vaccination management by 9 January

The rapid rollout of Ireland’s vaccination programme is another example of how quickly things were achieved during the pandemic. Having realised their existing IT system was unlikely to cope with the scale and speed of the programme, the government decided to work with Salesforce on a solution. It needed to be created from scratch in record time, integrated with the Health Service Executive’s systems, and rolled out to hospitals and care homes within weeks.

“We were able to move from early discussions at the beginning of December to a proposal in the middle of December to having the Irish government up and running on vaccination management by 9 January,” says Collinson. He adds that this was only possible because the government was willing to rapidly shift from pre-baked ideas about its IT systems to a stance of “‘I just need something that works.’”

Legacy issues

While digital transformation in the public sector undoubtedly accelerated during the pandemic, “a lot of this was around enabling existing tools and ways of working to become remote, so setting up VPNs, distributed call centres, etc.,” says Paul Pick-Aluas, who leads digital transformation for EMEA public sector at Salesforce. His concern now is whether many of the changes will stick, as: “Once people get through a crisis, they tend to largely revert to the old way [of doing things].

“In certain agencies, they’ve seen a new way of working and will continue to push forward. But to me, the jury is still out on whether this is a milestone moment in the UK public sector – partly because of the critical mass of legacy IT that is still out there.”

This mass of legacy IT is a serious problem for a government that was once considered among the most technologically innovative in the world. Initiatives such as G-Cloud, the Digital Marketplace, and the Government Digital Service’s service design standards and principles were ahead of the curve. But the UN e-government ranking for the UK fell from 1st in 2016 to 7th in 2020, which shows that some of the momentum around digital transformation has been lost.

In particular, the government has struggled to deliver citizen-centric digital innovation that is efficient, trusted and focused on users’ needs and preferences. For example, instead of delivering personalised, relevant messages across multiple digital channels or providing rich citizen-facing apps, many government agencies remain stuck in the era of post, print outs and PDF forms. Data-driven collaboration across departments for a 360-degree view of citizens is also a work in progress, along with the shift from one-off customer transactions to relationship management.

To truly improve service delivery, better experiences during the intake of a request and a clean, easy-to-use site must also be matched by the right business processes, technology and architecture in the middle layer. Pick-Aluas says this is a “critical gap” in the UK’s overall strategy, and one of the reasons for the country’s drop in the UN rankings.

Historically, a lack of relevant data and concerns around data privacy and security have also been a barrier to implementing truly user-centric services. However, “examples such as the NHS Test and Trace app show that people are prepared to let the government track their actions…in return for something that is going to be of benefit to them,” says Collinson.

In fact, he believes that “a rubicon has been crossed” when it comes to the government’s approach to citizen data and engagement. “I think that’s one of the effects of Covid-19 which will, to coin the government phrase, allow people to ‘build back better’.”

Further funding

Funding for digital transformation is a perennial issue for government departments and public sector agencies. During the pandemic, this ‘money problem’ was swept away as the government strove to meet the urgent need for covid-related services and support. But as the country moves beyond the peak of the crisis and the government seeks to address huge levels of borrowing during the pandemic, could these increases in funding go into reverse?

“What we’re witnessing now is actually that funding is continuing,” says Collinson. “The government hasn’t just reverted to austerity, and that provides a genuine opportunity to build a different set of outcomes going forward.”

But although there hasn’t been a slow down of spending yet, Pick-Aluas feels that there will inevitably be a shift toward greater austerity. “Somehow, sometime, the money needs to be paid back, and it will come in the form of budget cuts,” he says.

This will undoubtedly impact IT, with the funding “haircut” likely coming from the modernisation budget. To continue transforming and innovating, organisation’s will need to adopt cyclical processes that allow them to invest in modernisation, capitalise on the resulting savings in operational expenditure, and thereby free up further funds for additional investment.

There’s a real need to audit value too – as demonstrated by tensions around spending on systems integrators (SIs) and consultants during the pandemic. Consultants and temporary staff can be an important source of skills for departments that need to rapidly transform. But specialist staff are also expensive, typically costing twice as much as their nearest permanent staff counterpart.

One of the real legacies of the pandemic is that government departments have needed to adopt low-code platforms, and so what you’re left with is this scattering across government of lots of new technologies, and the ability to deliver and develop more quickly on those platforms

Much of the spending during the pandemic centred on plugging the digital skills gap that has long plagued the public sector. “We see a genuine skills shortage within the UK at the moment, and that presents lots of opportunities in terms of what you do to resolve that,” says Collinson. For instance, he believes there’s a real need to pull more non-technical people into digital programmes.

“Low-code platforms are great for doing that,” he explains. Salesforce’s low-code development tools, for example, can reduce the need for expensive hard-to-find skills. This ultimately “puts more control in the hands of service teams, which allows technical teams to focus on innovation,” says Collinson.

Pick-Aluas adds that: “One of the real legacies of the pandemic is that government departments have needed to adopt low-code platforms, and so what you’re left with is this scattering across government of lots of new technologies, and the ability to deliver and develop more quickly on those platforms.”

Looking ahead, greater technical knowledge at the chief executive level is needed to keep driving the shift toward citizen-centric digital services, as well as more collaboration with partner ecosystems. Retaining the ‘can-do’ mindset created by the pandemic will also be a challenge as the crisis recedes into memory. But as the rollout of Spotlight and Ireland’s vaccine management programme show, with the right funding, skills and partners, the public sector can deliver digital services and engagements just as rapidly and successfully as the private sector.

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Transforming lives with cloud employability services

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) – the largest public service department in the UK – has deployed a range of interventions to combat unemployment during the covid crisis, including the JETS Programme in Scotland.

Job Entry: Targeted Support, or JETS, provides support to unemployed people across Scotland that have received benefits for at least 13 weeks. The programme analyses transferable skills and supports CV writing, job searches, interview skills and confidence-building. Capita, the DWP’s service provider, selected Salesforce and Venerate to create the platform, which was designed, built and mobilised in just 10 weeks.

Capita knew the platform would need to provide support within an increasingly dynamic job search environment and changing employment sector. It also had to be user-friendly enough to work seamlessly across desktop or mobile devices, as well as capable of integrating with job posting systems and scaling up or down with demand.

“The Salesforce platform was market leading, available, flexible and could be deployed at really short notice,” says Paul Dunphy, service delivery director for JETS in Scotland at Capita. “It had all the features that we needed in terms of being able to support the JETS program.”

The Salesforce Customer 360 Platform for Government collates information on a job-seeker in a personalised record and recommends opportunities based on their profile – all while meeting GDPR requirements. Job seekers who have been out of work for at least three months are referred to JETS by the DWP and asked to sign up via a community portal built on Experience Cloud.

Within the first three months of going live on Salesforce, JETS handled an estimated 8,000 referrals. Dunphy says that without a trusted partner like Salesforce, it would ultimately have been difficult to achieve everything the programme needed to do. “We probably couldn’t have launched a product that quickly that was going to be used by thousands of people from day one,” he says, adding that: “It’s not just a reliable platform; it’s actually a very flexible platform that’s given us a lot of additional functionality that we can build off.”

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