Public Sector & Technology: A Digital Revolution

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When we think of local authority bodies, we rarely think of how digitally advanced they are. Personally, accessing my local council website tends to put me in a towering passion, ending in me shutting the whole thing down due to its antiquated nature. However, some might argue, if it serves a purpose, why should councils feel the need to change?

The trouble with that train of thought is that public sector websites, and the IT infrastructure that supports it all,  have been lagging behind for some time now. With citizens increasingly tech-savvy and wanting seamless communication with their local councils in a simplified, more intuitive format, the public sector has to start adapting processes and infrastructure to suit end-user needs better. Good enough isn’t just good anymore.

Technology is evolving at a rapid pace, and the public sector needs to match it at a similar pace. The digital revolution that should occur should happen across all departments and not just be siloed and the sole focus of one department.

This blog will explore how IT departments can determine customer needs when upgrading their IT systems, achieve them and how the public sector and technology decisions are becoming more and more democratised.

Enabler of change

For IT departments to adopt change, they have to change internally first. By upgrading internal processes and improving the IT infrastructure, they can then react to external change more efficiently.

For example, let’s take a relatively simple internal change that can be made rapidly and with little cost. Moving away from Microsoft Outlook to Google Mail, IT departments do not then have to manage the Exchange servers or focus efforts on fixing issues when things go wrong. This saves both time and money.

Similarly, by moving certain platforms and applications to cloud-based systems, such as adopting hosted telephony, can allow civil servants to be on the move whilst ensuring they can communicate with their team instantly and securely. By allowing teams to collaborate and integrate their services, this can also free up more time, allowing them to focus on analysing the massive amounts of data coming out of the different public sector platforms and systems. More often than not, these cloud technologies allow real-time data to be delivered, allowing various departments to respond to customer's issues and needs quickly.

Determining customer needs

But what are these citizen needs? Technology is constantly evolving. Inevitably, the public sector is regularly stuck between cost efficiency and focusing on providing real value to customer needs. IT departments in the public sector are also seeking to recoup as much return on investments at minimum cost. Often they will turn to many different technologies to fulfil their needs, and frequently some technologies do not achieve the specific system needs. With various needs required for local health and education, for example, IT departments also need to be aware of both user needs and be cost-efficient with decisions.

With a large user base that is both tech knowledgeable but also demanding simpler, easy to use services, determining customer needs is problematic for IT departments looking to upgrade their systems. IT departments in local governments are frequently finding themselves under pressure to adopt new processes with limited resources and funding.

Indeed, as Alan W. Brown, Jerry Fishenden and Mark Thompson succinctly wrote in the book ‘Revolutionising Digital Public Service Delivery: A UK Government Perspective’: “For public sector organisations across the world, the pressures for improved efficiency during the past decades are now accompanied by an equally strong need to revolutionise service delivery to create solutions that better meet citizens’ needs; to develop channels that offer efficiency and increase inclusion to all citizens being served; and to re-invent supply chains to deliver services faster, cheaper, and more efficiently.”

Citizen needs can be summed up as to how accessible and easy-to-use the service is. This is ultimately where IT departments need to focus their efforts while they are replacing their infrastructure and systems. By offering this, the changes will provide a real return on investments to councils looking to recoup as much costs as possible.

Achieving customer needs

So how do you go about achieving these needs? With local authority IT departments seeking to update and upgrade various ancient IT systems on a limited budget, they need to be aware of these needs. Arguably, the key is to keep everything simple. How many of us in the past have sworn at the computer screen when attempting to pay a council tax bill or a permit? By identifying the customer needs, simplifying the process, you make people happy and drive down costs.

Let’s take an example with the DVLA, which was used in a recent white paper Digital Trends in Local Government. The DVLA handles over 44 million applications for vehicle tax renewals each year.

When the department needed to update their system, they implemented the Electronic Vehicle Relicensing (EVL) system. This was designed in a way to make the whole process of renewing vehicle tax easier and drive down the extortionate costs the old system used.

The entire process took a year to complete but the improvement seen was instant. Currently, the EVL is generating more sales than Tesco. Each week 273,500 motorists buy and renew their tax discs electronically. As a result of this costs have been cut by almost 30 per cent.

One size does not fit all

However, with local authority IT departments going through and updating systems, they need to be aware that not all public sector services can fit one mould. Of course not, considering the local government is made of 433 independent entities… How would you fit health and education systems into council tax services?? Therefore, IT departments need to be aware of the need to create tailor-made solutions for certain sectors. They need to be aware that today’s citizens expect a seamless experience across many different channels, either phone, face-to-face, mobile devices…

Indeed, as IT departments evolve, local authority systems must shift away from a monolithic to an agile approach which is service-user led and where members of the public could be stakeholders in the project.

Democratising public digital services

Frequently, IT departments are driving an agile system with which some local authority platforms can be run by stakeholders and members of the public. Let’s take another example from that same whitepaper with Casserole. Casserole is based in Surrey and is a volunteer-based public service which needs an online platform with which volunteers can register to share extra portions of home-cooked food. Casserole was then launched after a successful pilot where over 200 plates of food were shared in Surrey. The project was supported by both a website and the futuregov platform, which allows authorities across the country to access it. This wouldn’t be possible without collaboration between different teams, either internal, citizens or third-party, made possible by a solid and scalable IT infrastructure.Moreover, by enabling systems to be handed over to members of the public, with cases such as Casserole, citizen input is increased and in turn allows citizens to become the builders of public services. Throw into the pot open source software and peer-to-peer networks and you have a democratic system, in the form of ideas sharing and the possibility to make the systems better.

Technology that just works

As you have probably realised, my experiences with public sector technology has been severely frustrating. The most basic things are extremely inconvenient and sometimes just plain don’t work. Take my council’s website for example: essential information is extremely slow to access, and a simple search function does not work. .. However, recently, local authorities have adopted effective search technologies, thanks in part to open source technology. Using another case study taken from that whitepaper, when local authorities used Livechat, it found that over 3.6 million queries were being carried out per day on over 460 million documents. Searches were taking an incredibly slow time, particularly with the filters in place.

Once the IT department had decided and utilised Elasticsearch, an open source search tool, it reduced the query time from two seconds to 100ms.

By effectively looking at what commercial websites use to help the customer journey, the public sector can research and adopt similar technologies. This then improves both the journey and needs of the citizen.

This blog explored ways in which public sector IT departments need to look internally first to produce real change for its customers and quickly identify customer needs. We also focussed on how IT departments apply these customer needs and how frequently IT departments are employing a democratic approach.

Next time we’ll focus on constraints faced by the public sector when adopting change.

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