At a recent workshop, experts from across all areas of the public sector discussed the opportunities which new technologies and cloud present to improve productivity. Indeed, one thing had become crystal clear at the back end of 2015: digital – or the latest technology – is high up the Government’s agenda.
Despite overall cuts to public sector budgets in the Government’s Spending Review and Autumn Statement 2015 £450 million was handed to the Government Digital Service (GDS) – part of £1.8 billion for digital transformation across the public sector.
But this was not a signal to spend on technology for technology’s sake or to digitise services because it is fashionable to do so. In his Spending Review announcements, Chancellor George Osborne emphasised the importance of digitising processes and services in order to gain maximum efficiency and value for the public purse. The need to do more with less will be a continuing pressure on all organisations – indeed, Osborne cited the funding for digital as one of the key steps towards ‘improving the productivity of the state’.
Doing more with less inevitably means losing a significant number of staff over time. The overall cost of Whitehall administration is being cut by £1.9 billion during the Spending Review period. So public sector organisations will – by necessity – be looking to technology to improve productivity, enable agile, flexible mobile working and payment structures that can accommodate rapidly changing numbers of users whilst providing a base for innovation. Citizen self-service and flexible home working will become the norm and technology infrastructures must be transformed to support this.
The conundrum facing local public services, however, is that there was no specific funding in the Spending Review for local digital. Government believes that the sector should collaborate amongst itself to harness the power of digital. In hard times, therefore, local government is now faced with the dilemma of needing to go much further down the digital road to fulfil its role in the long term, but struggling to find the money to maintain existing services – let alone invest heavily in new technology. It will need a shared effort with a pooling of resources to make a difference.
There is an opportunity to do this as part of the devolution of powers and integration of key services such as health and social care. However, it is a complex two-way step, devolving some powers down to the level of a metropolitan authority – Manchester being the first – while pulling together others from the city’s local councils. It will also be a big step towards the integration of the two strands of care, one of the key elements of the NHS ‘Five Year Forward View’.
Getting the technology right will be crucial to delivering these visions. Providing the technology infrastructure might prove relatively straightforward, but aligning the data flows between the various bodies – especially enabling some sharing between health and social care – is going to be a stiff task.
Participants at the workshop said that problems can arise around the compatibility of datasets, protocols for document sharing and ensuring only the appropriate people have access to records. These issues become more complex when other organisations, such as charities, need to share data to provide services. But if they get it right there will be great rewards.
Inevitably, cloud will have a key role in making this transformation vision a reality.
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Next week: The Cultural and Behavioural Challenges in Adopting Public Sector Cloud.