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Pandemic response reveals information management shortcomings in the public sector

(Image credit: Image Credit: Wk1003mike / Shutterstock)

As public sector organizations adapt to the new normal, inadequacies in information management have come to the fore.  More than one third (35 percent) of respondents to a new survey, conducted by SynApps Solutions, feel they ‘lack the right tools to find information efficiently’. James Paton, CEO of SynApps Solutions, shines a light on the information management capabilities shortcomings revealed by the survey and suggests starting points for change.

Across many public sector organizations, work is already underway to support smart workforce collaboration, integrating records, systems and data into a single view. But this must accelerate – the research study ‘Information in Transition: Smarter Working in the new Normal’, revealed that 60 percent of respondents still rely on paper records to some extent.

It is clear that workers are widely using unconnected, legacy information systems supplemented with paper-based systems in parts of their operations, making flexible, remote working a stretch goal for many public sector organizations. Disruption caused by the pandemic has put smart workforce collaboration, records integration, and data processing at the heart of public sector organizations – but it has also exposed inefficiencies as teams try to access the information they need to progress workloads.

In a data-led public sector, the speed and efficiency with which employees can access information is absolutely critical to performance and quality of service. Yet, almost three quarters of those who responded (73 percent) cited the use of multiple systems across their organization as the single biggest reason they found it difficult to access information. In fact, 38 percent of respondents said they had to log into 16 or more information systems in the course of a working day, taking five minutes each time.

Securing remote working

The coronavirus crisis accelerated the need for information systems that would support remote and virtual working. Most employees don’t have enterprise standard IT in their own homes, meaning the fallback for short term remote working in a crisis, as we have seen, is the use of personal laptops and mobile devices.

Even in non-exceptional times, personal devices are being used more and more in today’s public sector workplace, although nothing like on the scale that BYOD (bring your own device) has been adopted in the private sector. Where they are an accepted part of an organization’s working processes, however, it would be reassuring to know there are sufficient safeguards in place to guarantee the security of any data carried on them.

The critical issue, of course, is over the control of data. The overwhelming use of personal IT devices, according to the survey, is email. When information is sent in an email, and personal devices sync and download it, it becomes an immediate security risk – not to mention a compliance issue. GDPR states all data must be “processed in a manner that ensures appropriate security of the personal data, including protection against unauthorized or unlawful processing and against accidental loss, destruction or damage.”

Quite simply, mobile phones, tablets and laptops get lost and stolen. Most have some kind of password protection, of course, but these are relatively easy to bypass for determined criminals. And while there are tools to wipe mobile devices remotely, they are not infallible and offer no guarantee that data has been deleted before it has been accessed by a third party.

The answer for organizations seeking the efficiencies of mobile IT without the risk is a ‘light touch’ integration of personal devices into enterprise content management (ECM) architecture, allowing data to be viewed but not replicated, moved or downloaded. That means using a workflow platform, usually cloud-based, that presents data in any browser or applications commonly used on PCs and mobile devices. In this way, data never leaves the organization – it is simply enabled for viewing remotely on devices connected to central IT systems, with carefully controlled security safeguards limiting who can see it.

Beyond the considerations of security and mitigating data loss when access to information is granted on personal devices, the lesson of the Covid–19 lockdown is surely that personal IT must become more integrated with central systems to allow for more flexible and remote working.

Refining information search processes

The research reveals that public sector organizations are facing and broadly negotiating day-to-day business process management challenges successfully, despite outdated or over-complex information management systems, siloed data repositories, poor record keeping and concerns about security and data governance.

However, typically, workers will spend 6.6 hours each week waiting for search results to be returned – or more if those searches are spread across multiple systems. Respondents also reported that quality of the application interfaces they are using is a factor in how easily and thoroughly they can search. A quarter (26 percent) of respondents say their information search facility is ‘not at all intuitive’. This contributes hugely to service delays and performance issues

Refining and improving information search processes is vital, if public sector organizations are to deliver the maximum possible benefit to their service users. Those that are more advanced on their digital journey are already taking advantage of controlled repositories that allow better use of unstructured data via metadata search and retrieval, smarter indexing, and technology that is able to identify and extract key data.

Emerging technologies are already available from a number of cloud providers that accelerate and refine these processes still further by adding tools such as natural language processing and machine automation. As a result, research efficiency is expanding to include files and documents outside structured data repositories.

There is no doubt that transforming to automated document management and streamlined information retrieval brings enormous cost and efficiency benefits. But the corresponding process of cultural change can be every bit as complex as the digital transformation. A major overhaul of business processes translates into a significant change to employees’ day-to-day working lives.

It is important to communicate to employees the benefits to them and the service they are providing. It is key to allay fears that automation will threaten jobs and get employee buy-in to change – otherwise investment in technology may not deliver the hoped-for efficiency gains. This is not a one-off exercise. Public sector organizations must enable employees to provide feedback on the solution and to allow them to access ongoing, on-the-job training in new systems and processes.

Supporting remote collaboration

The future is uncertain and many public organizations face the potential requirement of having to pivot to increased remote working at a moment’s notice in future. The requirement for digital operations supporting remote collaboration is becoming increasingly vital. The public sector’s ‘new normal’ will almost certainly feature workplaces that are more dynamic and adaptive than before. Platforms that aggregate information of all types efficiently and make it available wherever required must now be at the heart of public sector IT.

James Paton, CEO, SynApps Solutions