Challenges & Difficulties In Developing A Digital Transformation Strategy for the Public Sector

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With the need for digital transformation in the public sector, it faces plenty of challenges to achieve this. Savings are increasingly being sought and with constant technological innovation, the public sector faces an uphill battle to accomplish both cost efficient methods and achieving the needs of its citizens.

This blog will look into the challenges facing public sector over its digital future and how some councils have combatted legacy technology to implement their digital strategy.

The need for cuts

Pressures on funding in the public sector has to rate as the most challenging facing IT departments. With funding reduced by a total of 43 per cent since 2010 and future cuts planned until at least 2020, councils have to think twice when spending money. With a growing amount of people requesting more services than ever from the public sector, the IT departments in the public sector needs to find efficiency savings.

Part of these cost efficiency strategies is bringing down the cost of their IT infrastructure, either by combining resources, implementing a collaborative process or allowing staff to bring their own devices (BYOD). This in itself brings issues such as security but for some councils that have started implementing cost cutting measures, it has begun to save money.

For example, in the London Borough of Hillingdon, the IT department decided to move the entire council to Google Apps. This has saved the council over £750,000 a year. Rather than investing in expensive technology, Hillingdon has decided to cut this out as it proved too costly to maintain.

Open source vs proprietary

Another challenge to public sector is the increasing use of open source. While open source can mean greater flexibility to the public sector and allow departments to freely make changes to the software, it still brings about key issues. Issues such as the management of open source tools and security are at the forefront. Whereas proprietary systems are updated regularly, open source tools can quickly become depreciated as other tools take its place. Departments need to identify new tools quickly and efficiently and also to identify the level of command when deciding on who is responsible whenever these issues arise.

However, one example of where open source has worked well is the councils of Westminster City and Hounslow. Both extensively use open source software saving them £600,000 a year. Solihull council uses Red Hat Linux which has resulted in savings of over £1 million since 1999. So clearly it works for some councils, though I would be hesitant to say it works for all councils. It’s all dependent on specific council needs and requirements.

The constant need to innovate

As with most things related to technology, by the time you’ve settled on a strategy dedicated to updating and upgrading IT systems, technology has advanced yet another step.

Nowhere is this more apparent than for Camden Borough Council. The borough wants to develop a digital strategy that will support and allow the local authority to grow and develop. It looks at big data analytics through to open data and the Internet of Things.

However, in an interview with ComputerWeekly, Camden Council CIO John Jackson said:
“It’s almost out of date the day you publish it but we will continue to align the big changes over the next few years to meet our financial challenges.”

A bloated ecosystem

Similarly there are systems in the public sector that have been built on and developed that now just can’t fit with other systems, creating unnecessary bloat. For example in many of the council's back-end systems,a number of portals are separate and don’t communicate between each other, resulting in an elongated process for the customer.

Taking the example with Camden council, an issue they encountered was when customers tried to validate a parking permit for a vehicle. Instead of using the electoral register to verify the address, customers had to validate who they were using a different system and using additional ID. They redid the system to improve the customer experience and do away with the bloat. Siloed technology such as this isn’t cost effective or efficient, but with technology that has bloated over time, replacing these take time and are incredibly clunky.Cultural disconnect

Councils for a long period of time have been fairly autonomous within their own regions, making decisions and largely running departments on their own. Frequently, as cost cutting takes place, collaboration and sharing innovation and good practises is taking place between councils.

While good practises are eventually shared, there is frequently a difficulty in highlighting and sharing each other’s progresses, particularly when highlighting the benefits of updating and upgrading technologiesand what tools are used in certain situations. In the case studies used above, other councils might also benefit from adopting the cloud or various other tools.

Nowhere is this more seen than between national programmes and local councils. National programmes are more often than not designed and implemented away from local councils and then are given to localities to implement themselves. Often there is a significant trust issue in sharing experiences.

New digital services are also often poorly marketed. People aren’t going to trust a system that has just been built without having guarantees that it is more secure and safe and that the public’s needs are coming first. Get over the trust issues and digital innovation can happen. Getting over these barriers will allow digital innovation to take place.

Trust issues

Talking of trust, this is one of the fundamental barriers between public sector IT departments and members of the public. In a recent report by Deloitte entitled “Making digital default: Understanding citizen attitudes” while 88 per cent of the public were open in engaging with the public sector online, 33 per cent of people felt that the public sector could end up misusing their personal data.

Furthermore, a significant holdback is that only 18 per cent felt that an improved service offered by the public sector would be achieved. The report suggested significant work be done to create a well-designed online service that has clear online guarantees and an incentivisation to go online looking for information.

While there is a need to innovate and update IT systems, the public sector, by having the microscope of the public on them at all times, have to take a multitude of issues into account. However, there are examples, which we have shared, where the public sector has been successful. Getting over each of these barriers and keeping the customer experience in mind will help IT departments digitally transform and look to the future. 

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