Digital transformation. It’s a phrase uttered frequently and with much fervour among senior government figures, heads of public sector and tech innovators in the UK. But it isn’t exclusively a British phenomenon. Governments across the world are committed to bringing digital transformation to their public services, overhauling outdated analogue models of delivering services to citizens. In essence, public sector organisations like the NHS and local councils want to digitise their services to meet the online expectations the public now has through the behavioural change organisations, such as Amazon, have brought about.
And while this is an ambitious but necessary goal for the public sector, digitising services is merely the first step in a very long journey towards true transformation, stretching from updating the back-end office system to the cultural mind-set shift of staff.
Digitisation is only the beginning
At a recent Digital Leaders Public Sector Innovation Conference, Kevin Cunnington, Director General at the Government Digital Service (GDS) – talked about the democratisation of digital across the government as a high priority. During his speech, he encouraged government departments to aim for transformation rather than just digitisation.
Cunnington touched on a very significant point. When councils talk about transformation, it should not merely be limited to overhauling legacy contracts, moving systems to the cloud or building digital citizen portals. This is the digitisation part and it’s the start of the process but far from the end of it. Transformation is much more widespread and deep-rooted – it must take place with the acceptance from staff first so that they can embrace digital rather than letting it lead them, and potentially overwhelming them.
Important initiatives like the GDS Academy build digital skills and capability across the civil service, giving staff the specialist knowledge they need, as well as a sense of ownership over the transformation of their local authority. Where digitisation ends, it is where cultural change, training schemes, and true transformations begin.
The problem with digital transformation projects, as Cunnington alludes to, is that they begin with the right intentions but the wrong direction. It is not enough to replace your legacy systems with more updated software and call it a day. Digital transformation requires a complete overhaul of how a government department operates, ensuring its civil servants are comfortable with their back office digital technology and understand how the available data can help them better serve the public. Through collaborative effort, clear communication from all levels of the organisation, and a comprehensive training scheme for staff, the transformation of a local authority can reach deeper levels that the procurement of new technology.
Overcoming the resistance to change
Across the country, many councils are moving their services to one single platform in the cloud. In the same way that citizens can purchase anything through one online portal on Amazon, UK councils want its citizens to be able to interact in this way too, and in fact, in any way they so wish. By accomplishing this, and having a solid CRM in place, councils can achieve the coveted ‘single customer view' of its citizens and, armed with this connected data, can personalise its services accordingly whilst achieving the real efficiencies that are needed.
However, with digital transformation can come a familiar stumbling block – people can resist change. There is a level of comfort and security which leads to a sense of confidence in one’s ability to do one’s job with operating existing legacy systems, regardless of their inefficiency in the current digital landscape. Emerging digital technologies and talk of AI is perceived as the unknown, the untried and possibly seen as a risk to jobs
Simply put, the appetite for digital transformation in the public sector, whilst very real, does not actually manifest itself in action when it comes to making the practical change, but rather it becomes a straight swap out of legacy for pretty much the same working practices with little real long-term benefits realised. Even if you change the technology that is being used, it is still the same people using it. So, the question the public sector needs to ask themselves is ‘how do we change this situation?’
By building workplace tools and implementing processes which make it easier for staff to carry out their work more efficiently. Moreover, departments should not be operating in siloes, cut off from each other like leaves from a tree, but should be connected by a common root which binds them. Collaborative services will ensure that public sector organisations, such as the NHS, can have access to data from, for example social housing departments which would enable them to better understand patients’ needs.
Moreover, there needs to be a consistent digital standard across the Government. Organisations across the country should be operating from one agreed level of quality and be sharing best digital practice, to ensure progress is universal across the sector. Transformation should not be a race with winners and losers; it should be a consistent effort across all sectors.
Collaboration between the public and private sector
Achieving a high digital standard throughout the public sector is a challenge but with learning from the private sector, who have made the move to shifting their working practices and customer interactions to a true end to end digital environment, is not beyond the scope of many departments as it currently stands. While collaboration between public sector organisations will be crucial to achieving the highly ambitious objectives of digital transformation, the public sector must also collaborate with the private sector to help it achieve digital transformation success. Having trust and confidence between sectors will allow the sharing of best practice and best technology, and will pave the road for long-term, stable change. Without this, the two sectors will continue to progress at different rates and true transformation may be more difficult to achieve.
It is encouraging that, after years of inertia, the public sector is now taking digital transformation seriously. However, when launching projects, the sector must remember that just because you start with the digital, it does not guarantee the transformation. Transformation will only be realised when a culture shift occurs - staff understanding the benefits and what it can deliver to the customer. Only then can complete digital transformation happen.
Colin Wales, Business Development Director, Arcus Global (opens in new tab)
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