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Playing catch-up, how the public sector can embrace digital transformation

(Image credit: Image Credit: Konica Minolta Business Solutions UK )

Nearly all industries are in the midst of digital transformation. Whether it’s online shopping, customer service chatbots or increasingly sophisticated AI experiences, the competition is fierce and it’s “do or die” for businesses who are trying to best engage digitally savvy consumers.

However, there are still some sectors that are lagging behind and simply don’t use technology as well as they could. In the UK, the public sector is heavily reliant on older IT infrastructure, which can significantly hamper the ability of staff to deliver the high-level of service that we have come to expect thanks to pioneering industries such as retail and logistics.

Squeezed budgets make adopting digital technologies on a large scale difficult, and despite the introduction of a range of online services there is still a long way to go until the public sector can boast a truly efficient digital strategy. With many calling for complete digital transformation as a solution to public sector service problems, we’re seeing an increased imperative for these organisations to catch up with their counterparts in commercial industry.

But what does the term “digital transformation” really mean and how feasible is it for a public sector that faces so many pressing challenges?

A cohesive approach

A study by Accenture highlights that for an organisation to digitally transform it must put “organisational, operational and technological foundations in place that powers constant evolution and cross-functional collaboration”.

This definition tells us that whilst digital technologies can be valuable tools to improve public services and reduce health and social inequalities, true digital transformation isn’t about discreet initiatives, but rather a wider and more cohesive approach to harnessing the power of technology. Indeed, if digital services are introduced in a piecemeal way, without a broader vision to provide for all in society, they may actually be in danger of excluding citizens who are either unable or unwilling to use technology.

What’s needed is a broader strategy that harnesses the power of technology to provide for all in an inclusive, accessible and sustainable way - and it’s here that the “smart city approach” comes in.

What unites all of our cities, in the UK and further afield, is that they thrive, or otherwise, on shared public systems and services. Governments, technology companies and businesses all want to leverage this interconnection and the data it produces in order to bring intelligence to urban environments, and to improve the quality of life for residents.

A collaborative approach to building a smart city can certainly bring significant benefits. When large companies such as IBM and Cisco work together with civic planning authorities and universities, they can focus on improving public transport, law enforcement, energy use and waste management by using data-driven systems.

In the UK, we can take inspiration from other territories. Tokyo’s smart traffic management technology, for example, can detect possible congestion and dynamically change speed limits to clear up the roads accordingly. In New York, a $1.6 million program - Midtown in Motion - is seeking to alleviate major traffic congestion with field sensors, RFID readers (to scan E-Zpasses) and cameras that can transmit real-time traffic data to a control centre in Queens.

Businesses too will benefit from a smart city environment, seeing greater efficiency in their operations and ultimately better service to customers. For instance, improved traffic management will improve supply chain and logistics for online retailers, whilst smart lighting may improve footfall around physical shopping centres, boosting sales for local businesses.

Making it happen

It is clear that a broad and collaborative approach to smart living is vital to public sector digital transformation success. But of course, schemes like those outlined in Tokyo and beyond are only possible when digital infrastructures can physically link dispersed machines and sensors, so they can exchange information in real time. Indeed, to tap into the potential value of “big data”, interconnections between people and applications, data, content, clouds and networking needs to be seamless.

Being able to store IoT generated data, the ability to access and interpret it as meaningful actionable information is vitally important and will give huge competitive advantage to organisations and municipalities that do it well, and this puts data centres firmly at the heart of any digital transformation strategy.

When it comes to getting the data centre strategy right, government departments and local authorities have significant challenges to overcome. Most will have to mix the old and the new - dealing with legacy infrastructure as well as creating new facilities. For some this might mean that traditional “core” connectivity hubs will have to work alongside smaller data centres optimised for edge computing. And, as more and more applications are required to service immediate engagement – such as media streaming or payments - data centres must be placed correctly for this type of need too.

Ultimately the extensive nature of digital transformation needs something beyond a company or Government department's in-house storage capabilities and this presents significant opportunities for data centre providers to help. Already we are seeing many government departments and wider organisations turning to third party IT suppliers to help them navigate their data centre strategies - engaging with colocation facilities that provide the best in interconnectivity, flexibility and scalability. This is a trend which looks set to continue and grow. 

So, for any wide scale digital transformation to succeed in a highly regulated world - where any technical advancement must be inclusive and cater for all, it’s vital to start with getting the basics right - ensuring impact of new technologies on infrastructure is managed and, simply, getting the data centre strategy right is an imperative first step. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that as our UK cities grow, whether they thrive and deliver a good quality of life to millions of citizens is down to the IT backbone that underpins them.   

A back to basics approach should trump any “flashy” new customer facing system - if it doesn’t work, isn’t reliable or is inconsistent, then technology innovation may be at best not used - and at worst detrimental to its reputation. In the public sector discreet initiatives which aren’t benefiting wider society aren’t worth doing.

Darren Watkins, managing director, VIRTUS Data Centres (opens in new tab)

Darren began his career as a graduate Military Officer in the RAF before moving into the commercial sector. He brings over 20 years experience in telecommunications and managed services gained at BT, MFS Worldcom, Level3 Communications, Attenda and COLT. He joined the VIRTUS team from euNetworks.