Covid-19 was a revolutionary year for the public sector. It had to take dramatic steps to survive and stabilize, rapidly shifting to remote working for employees and prioritizing digital delivery.
The NHS was put under enormous pressure from two waves of Coronavirus. And local authorities had to support the most vulnerable by freezing rent payments, supporting food banks and providing shelter for those desperately needing it.
But one positive effect of this difficult period in the public sector has been accelerated digital transformation. Our research showed that 55 percent of local authorities now rate digital investment as a top priority moving forward, while 51 percent are speaking to cloud services providers to help shape their plans to rebound.
This is promising because continual investment in digital infrastructure will be pivotal to the public sector’s rebound in 2021. Connectivity has a critical role to play in supporting new working patterns, providing first-class public services and tackling social inequalities.
Supporting the shift to hybrid working
Sarah Jensen, CIO at Barts Health NHS Trust, recently talked about how her team had to switch to remote working “basically overnight” and adjust their IT strategy within “14 furious days” as the first Covid-19 wave hit in March.
Despite individual herculean efforts, implementing remote working was a challenge across the NHS. 69 percent felt operating from home and the security challenges it brought were a “headache”, a situation not helped by the immense strain on the health service which was at frontline of the pandemic.
The picture across local government was more positive, with one IT director telling us it had “created a sense of vindication for (them)”, adding remote working was something they’d been “pushing for a long time, so to prove that our investment was well worth it is good to see”.
But a recent study by Citrix revealed differing views about perceived productivity levels. Almost three in four public sector staff members called for “serious change” to allow them to be more productive. Yet three in five leaders said their organization has been delivering “optimal” outputs throughout the pandemic.
This disparity suggests the public sector has some way to go if it is to support remote working over the long term. This is because, even with the rollout of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine by next spring, we’re unlikely to see a return to working in the office everyday.
A hybrid model, with employees operating from multiple locations, will be commonplace. And this will require advanced connectivity solutions to support the natural fluidity and flexibility of this new way of working.
But awareness of important networking solutions is low across the public sector. Only 22 percent of local government decision-makers see SD-WAN as a priority after the pandemic. The figure stands at 30 percent in the NHS.
This is worrying because these advanced, cloud-ready connectivity services are well-equipped for providing network managers with greater control of their bandwidth and the ability to scale up and down according to the business need.
And this will be critical as remote working persists within a hybrid model.
To give public sector employees the power they need to collaborate and deliver impact, organizations must step up their investment in network services and applications.
Delivering world-class public services
With consumer expectations of digital platforms soaring during the lockdowns, the public sector must ensure it’s delivering seamless virtual experiences.
The NHS Long Term Plan, published in late 2018, identified telehealth as a top priority, and the pandemic has catalyzed many of its objectives. The Health Secretary recently stated that after the pandemic, GPs should carry out 45 percent of consultations remotely. Faced with an ageing population and the possibility of further waves of Coronavirus, delivering remote healthcare is rightly a top priority.
For local authorities, too, the pandemic is likely to accelerate a shift to digital citizen services. 30 percent of decision-makers we surveyed said it was likely they’d stop renting or sell office space, with some council buildings potentially becoming redundant as interactions move online.
While critical buildings will remain, such as libraries, which are being used for digital inclusion programs, job searches and universal credit applications, we expect to see digitization continue at pace in 2021. This is a positive development that will create new opportunities and widen access to public services.
But it rests upon lightning-fast connectivity – the ability to transfer patient and citizen data speedily and securely. This means NHS and local authority decision-makers need to continue investing in the right networking solutions that can provide the agility, flexibility and resilience needed to drive a rebound next year.
Delivering social impact
The pandemic has led to social and economic devastation. The young, low paid and socially disadvantaged have been the hardest hit.
This means a focus for local authorities in 2021 will be creating opportunities, reducing inequality, and ensuring the pandemic doesn’t exacerbate poverty.
Connectivity has a pivotal role to play here, as the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) has shown. In Manchester, almost one in four children live in poverty and around 200,000 residents are classed as digitally excluded.
But the GMCA is drawing on the power of connectivity to tackle inequality. Together with Virgin Media Business, it is delivering the UK’s largest Local Full Fibre Networks Programme – a government backed scheme designed to give more people and organizations access to hyperfast gigabit connections. It is connecting over 1,700 public sites, creating economic and social opportunities for local residents.
The rebound isn’t about technology. It’s about people.
By drawing on the power of networks, local authorities can have a genuine social impact, widening access to digital services and transforming lives.
Driving the rebound
2020 was a year of survival and stabilization.
Across the public sector, IT teams had to react rapidly to unprecedented circumstances. And they were largely successful in delivering the digital change necessary to keep projects moving and serve the public.
But 2021 will be about the rebound, shifting from a defensive mentality to thinking about how the public sector can solve social problems and drive a broader recovery from the pandemic.
It is clear connectivity is a big part of the answer. Its potential to connect employees, solve problems for citizens and treat patients in the most effective and efficient way possible is unlimited.
And, as we head into 2021, we should be optimistic about the public sector’s role in making this happen.
Martin McFadyen, head of public sector, Virgin Media Business