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What will Covid’s digital transformation legacy be for the Public Sector?

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(Image credit: Shutterstock / vs148)

It is undeniable that the pandemic has had an impact on the way the public sector has had to operate, but will the changes that it’s been forced to implement signify change that lasts longer than the virus itself? What the public sector enacted in response to Covid-19 was revolutionary, enabling remote working (for example) on a hitherto unimaginable scale in such a short time frame can only be seen as a significant success.

This move towards remote working was of course coupled with the challenge of dealing with the pandemic itself, at a local and national level this was a task hard to understate. Major new digital schemes were ideated and implemented, including the furlough scheme and GOV.UK’s coronavirus hub to name just two examples. Combine that with ensuring interdepartmental data collation and sharing, again at both a national and local level and you can make an uncontroversial assumption that the knock-on impact for digital transformation will have been monumental. Multi-year digital transformation strategies were delivered in weeks.

It’s too easy to reduce the digital transformation legacy of Covid, to whether home working practices will continue. The opportunity is far bigger and more exciting than that.  There is now a once in a generation opportunity to take advantage of the changes that have been implemented. Cebr (Centre for Economics and Business Research) estimates that GDP could increase to £75 billion thanks to ‘boosted investment and fast adoption of post-Covid digital transformation’. According to Cebr, across Local Government, education and healthcare, ‘efficiencies and cost-savings’ from digital adoption could be reinvested in jobs, public infrastructure and innovation, boosting the UK economy by £75 billion in 2040.

Potential for radical change

The report by Cebr and similar research have identified three key trends that will shape the legacy of digital transformation for the public sector. The first is probably the most straightforward to comprehend – the digital delivery of services. It’s now far more likely that more services will be provided online than have been previously. Nearly 80 percent of court hearings were happening online by the second month of lockdown, it is now a question of departmental appetite to consider how much of this can remain. The second trend is flexible working, and collaboration. The public sector (like the private sector) has spent the last year meeting virtually, a process that has the potential to create enormous efficiencies in real estate but also in work-life balance for individuals. Thirdly is an issue I previously touched upon, the availability of and size of good data. The digital transformation step change that has occurred during the pandemic has unlocked a significant amount of data that was previously inaccessible to public bodies and institutions. Local Government, for example, now knows far more about those it provides services for than it did previously, as they begin to make informed policy decisions based upon this information it will be hard for them to simply switch it off.

At a local level, Covid’s digital transformation legacy has the potential to be radical. Whilst it would be completely unfair to claim that most Local Authorities were not already transitioning towards a ‘digital first’ landscape, once the restrictions created by the pandemic kicked in those digital elements in the ‘nice to have’ column suddenly became ‘must have’. Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) is a useful case study. Prior to the Covid-19 it had in pace a digital transformation strategy, its Digital Blueprint. When the pandemic arrived it simply brought with it a sense of urgency, the strategy remained the same, it just needed to be done now.

Enthusiasm for digital transformation

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, IT departments in Local Authorities took on an order of importance and received a level of gratitude that they’d perhaps not been used to. Jai Ghai, Wolverhampton’s Head of ICT (in conversation with Virgin Media) has said that “one of the earliest and best decisions was to roll out Microsoft Teams. In just one week we went from 300 users to more than 4,200. In ordinary times we wouldn’t have rolled it out that way”. The same anecdotes arise time and again from Local Authority works across the country, it wasn’t that they were doing things they hadn’t planned to, they were just not waiting around anymore. It was a case of ‘do it now and do it better’.

The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents 335 councils across England believe that whilst progress has been made, it is a question of funding as to whether the gains that have been felt can outlive the pandemic. Focussing on the impact that digital transformation has had on adult social care, it has found that ‘Councils can, with the right resources, drive forward local innovation and transformation across adult social care at pace and scale’. It found specifically that ‘digital transformation works best when embedded in a wider network of localized support, training and infrastructure’ and crucially ‘without adequate ongoing funding and resources, we risk stagnating progress that has been made in this area, limiting innovation, or not moving beyond one-off funded projects’.

This warning about investment from the LGA makes sense. There is currently enormous enthusiasm for digital transformation, to build on the cultural change that has enabled digital transformation during the pandemic. Without financial investment however, it will be difficult to maintain the progress made to date. There are practical, financial barriers to digital transformation. It is vital that those of us that implement digital change are loud and clear about the financial benefits to be gained from our work, that which may seem so obvious to us is often lost in a cost figure on spreadsheet in a Government department. There is reason to be cheerful. The pandemic is fortunately ending, and the pandemic will undoubtedly have changed the way people see digital services, the people that use them will now think they are the norm, their expectations have risen. And that’s not going away any time soon, as long as they have the vote our politicians will be inclined to meet our expectations and make the investment the public sector needs to ensure the legacy of last year’s digital transformation revolution.

Sam Johnston, Growth Officer, BookingLive

Sam Johnston, Growth Officer at BookingLive.