Digital government: it’s all about the people

A view from Government and Public Services Lead Partner, Rebecca George

This month, Deloitte has published our third Digital Disruption Index. Based on a survey of the UK’s most senior digital leaders from both private and public sectors, the index explores levels of digital maturity in their organisations. The results reinforce my belief that the defining factor in getting digital right is not the technology – which of course needs to deliver – but is people: the people who lead digital transformation and the people with the skills to make it happen.

Looking at the index from a public sector perspective, three issues stand out. First of all, public sector digital executives rate their organisations modestly on a scale of digital maturity. When asked to rank their place of work on a scale of one to ten, where ten is the peak of digital excellence, their average score was 4.67. No public sector participant rated their organisation more than seven.

I’m not surprised by that. Many leaders in the public sector underestimate how far their digital journey has taken them, and there’s an often an assumption that others are doing better. In fact, that ballpark of maturity, around halfway along the scale, was the most popular self-assessment from private sector digital leaders as well.

It’s also true that many public bodies have begun to adapt to digital from a pretty low base, not least because the public sector as we know it was largely formed in the Victorian era, defined by geographic boundaries and rooted in paper-based processes. Digital technology is challenging both of those factors, but I’m not convinced that the public sector need be at the disrupting edge of digital to realise its potential. Actually, it needs to be a canny fast follower – letting others work out what tech can do, bringing scalable and affordable products to the market and training enough people to deliver on time and on budget. Either way, citizens and taxpayers will start to expect greater digital maturity from their public sector as the balance in our daily lives tips towards user-centred digital experiences as the norm, and provider-centred analogue experiences as unacceptable.

The second finding from the index that stands out for me is that public sector digital executives identified cyber security, data analytics and cloud as their most critical strategic priorities and areas of most investment. Those are sensible choices. Governments and other public bodies have glimpsed the threat that cyber-terrorism poses, not least through the WannaCry attacks in 2017 that cost the NHS in England around £92m in lost patient care, immediate fixes and months of ongoing IT support. They also recognise the potential for making their data work for them, to inform decision-making, shape policy and offer more citizen-centred services. And many public bodies want to shift to cloud computing for the flexibility it brings to working practices, the cost-efficiency that comes with subscription-based software and the opportunities it opens up for collaborative tools.

While it’s right to say that public bodies need to establish the building blocks of digital, their digital leaders need to be ambitious too. The so-called ‘fourth industrial revolution’ technologies have extraordinary potential for the public sector, but we are yet to see widespread investment at scale. Take robotic process automation, for example. Deploying robotics for some of the high volume, rules-based transactions that a number of public bodies run could save millions and allow for better use of employee time. In healthcare, the time saved using technologies like robotics and artificial intelligence could be reinvested so that clinicians spend more time with patients, which we have explored in other research and call the ‘gift of time’. These technologies aren’t waiting on the distant horizon until everyone is ready – their potential can be grasped now.

However, the issue that really struck me from the Digital Disruption Index concerns people, and specifically in terms of leadership and skills.

It’s encouraging that more than half of the public sector digital executives who took part in the index said that their organisation has a coherent digital strategy, and striking that most said that its main purpose was to create cultural change – because that is crucial for digital to gain traction. Effective leaders recognise that delivering digital requires new, iterative ways of managing projects; a move towards design-thinking based on understanding the user in many cases; and a workforce willing to embrace new technology. Those fresh ways of working only come about through a shift in organisational culture. Typically, some employees relish the change while others are more reticent, but leadership is always needed to alter an organisation’s culture.

The index also finds that the majority of digital executives – in both the public and private sectors – do not think their talent pool has the sufficient capabilities to execute their digital strategy, do not believe their organisation’s learning programme supports it and do not agree that there are enough graduates and school leavers with the right knowledge to deliver digital. In other words, the index points to a significant digital skills deficit.

Our education system is not at fault. Digital skills quickly go out of date. What’s needed is an economy-wide change in our attitude to learning and skills, where organisations invest in growing their own expertise and work with education providers to maintain a talent pipeline. At the same time, every one of us needs to take responsibility for our own development needs. I also believe that we need to better recognise professionalism in technology. Our way of life now relies on people who are skilled in IT disciplines, and we should respect their work as such.

The potential for harnessing digital in government and the public services is well known. Ultimately, it can help the sector deliver better services to citizens with greater value for taxpayers’ money. But as our Digital Disruption Index highlights, if we want digital government of the people, for the people, we’re going to need to make sure we’ve got the people who can lead and deliver it.

The Digital Disruption Index is online here.

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