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What’s the answer to wasted technology spend in the public sector?

(Image credit: Image Credit: Bbernard / Shutterstock)

Whether it’s to improve productivity, allow frontline public sector workers to work remotely or something else entirely, for almost every challenge faced by the public sector over the past decade, some form of technology is usually presented as a solution.

Often this technology might deliver for the public sector, but what happens when it doesn’t? Wasted investment, poorly functioning tech and poor service delivery are just some of the issues that can arise and the cost of wasted technology spend is a big drain for both the private and public sectors.

A recent Flexera study - 2020 State of Tech Spend Report – estimated that at least 30 per cent of technology spend is wasted and identified the main problems as too many manual processes and not enough attention paid to avoiding waste. How can the UK public sector avoid such wastage?

The government technology innovation strategy

While the public sector has been encouraged to invest in new digital technologies to ensure more efficient delivery of public services and to modernise legacy backend systems, it also must keep a lid on expenditure. This balance is something the Government is aware of though, and is looking to address with its recently announced Government Technology Innovation Strategy.

This contains detailed plans for how emerging digital technology can be better deployed across the entire public sector, focusing on people, process and data and technology and covering new investments in digital technology as well as the maximising of legacy tech. It’s a welcome strategy, and there undoubtedly needs to be more focus on people and process, as these can be major barriers to the effective deploying of tech in the public sector. 

The public sector – both as a whole and by individual departments - needs to ask itself three questions to ensure it gets the most of the legacy technology that’s already in place, and also to get the best return from their investment in more modern digital solutions. Sometimes, it might also even emerge that spending on technology is not the best option for better service delivery anyway.

Have you addressed process and management?

New technology can often seem very attractive. For example, if a district health authority is having issues with getting drivers to take patients to and from hospitals at the right time, then a tool that tells drivers exactly when and where they are required can seem like a very effective proposition. But is it really technology that is causing those issues?

In this example of patient transportation, the actual problem might be a lack of planning and forethought. While drivers would be given the correct times to pick patients up, they were given only an approximate time for the return journey. Medical appointments can take longer than expected for a variety of reasons and this led to drivers waiting around, a waste of their time and resource. But this was not a problem that would be addressed by the implementation of a new technology solution.

A better approach would be to take a good look at the processes and management that surround a technology. This is something that should take place before very public sector IT investment – sadly, it isn’t nearly so commonplace as that – and must focus on the underlying and existing behaviours. This is vital, because if they are not addressed then there will be no real improvement and any investment will not deliver the desired results or ROI. If the technology is implemented before this takes place, then it can be done retrospectively but the ideal would always be to do it beforehand.

Are the supporting technologies up to standard?

It’s rare that any technology exists and is used in isolation. It will almost certainly need to connect to existing systems and its success will also depend on how users in that particular department deploy technology in their job…or do not.

When looking at any challenge or issue with technology within a public sector department it is imperative that the whole system is addressed and not just one part of it. For example, if a local health authority implements a new digital booking system it needs to connect with existing systems and it also needs to be deployed effectively by potential users.

This requires proper due diligence into those existing systems and the working habits / practices of the employees. It might well be that a new bookings system is required, but equally, if staff are primarily using another incompatible system for a related function, then the new system would not be effective. Technology does not exist in isolation and any new tech needs the surrounding tech around it to function properly as well. 

What purpose does the technology serve?

It can certainly be a viable option for the public sector to make better use of existing systems rather than investing in something new. If a technology could be used better and add more value, then it stands to reason that there shouldn’t necessarily be a major drive to replace it. Sometimes by changing processes or behaviours an improvement could be made so it becomes very important to ask exactly what purpose a new technology would serve?

We regularly see new wallboards displaying information that no-one looks at, cupboards full of broken technology and new systems which provide lots of data but very little insight. Managers still struggle to understand why productivity hasn’t improved and service levels remain stubbornly at previous levels, whilst IT departments move onto the next technology challenge and the promise of more shiny kit.

Technology can add enormous value to many different public sector projects, creating efficiencies and improving productivity, but throwing money at tech is not necessarily the answer. By taking a step back and focusing on the people, processes and behaviours around technology, the public sector can make its IT investment go much further. Sometimes it could even mean that investment in tech is not required at all and the vision found in the Government Technology Innovation Strategy can be achieved much more effectively.

David Beggs, Practice Director, Managementors

David Beggs is Practice Director at consultancy Managementors, where he’s responsible for developing and delivering projects within the IT and Government sectors, improving performance across client organisations at all levels.