Digital transformation continues  

The views of Public Sector leaders

Every year, Deloitte and Reform interview leaders from across government and the public sector to inform The State of the State. This year, we have interviewed more than 50 senior figures in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, including permanent secretaries, senior civil servants, police leaders, university vice-chancellors, NHS chief executives, council chief executives, agency directors, finance chiefs and more. These interviews form the most extensive qualitative research of its kind and allow for an unparalleled view of the public sector’s central challenges from the people who know them best.

Analogue processes are increasingly called out as technology transformation continues

Every year, our State of the State interviews touch on technology in the public sector. When we started this research series in 2013, the prevailing mood was one of optimism – that technology would deliver the cost reductions needed to mitigate the impact of austerity. This year, many interviewees told us that the hard work of digital transformation is continuing in their organisations, even though they started from a low base, with out-of-date systems.

However, analogue processes seem to stand out more than ever before. Several people we interviewed called out examples of old-fashioned practices they had observed in their organisation or wider sector, like the use of hard copy care records or fax machines. Most were conscious of the need to move away from paper-based working – not just to reduce costs but also to deliver better services for citizens.

In healthcare, several interviewees discussed tensions that arise from new technologies where some demographic groups such as younger professionals may wish to access services online – like GP appointments via Babylon – while others might not. One NHS chief executive reflected that this could lead to a two-tier health system emerging, in which healthier young people accessed services through devices whilst the majority of NHS users would continue to need traditional services. We interviewed a private sector healthcare provider who argued that NHS primary care was established as a place-based service like a grocer’s shop in the 1940s – but while grocers developed by joining other shops to form supermarkets, and then supermarkets started offering online services, NHS care has not undergone such fundamental transformation.

Interviewees in the public transport sector told us that technology appears to be changing travel patterns. Transport providers are playing close attention to the impact of technology as more people spend leisure time at home, shop online and work remotely.

University vice-chancellors told us that stories of supplier failure are rife in the sector, and while some higher education institutions are keen to begin major transformation projects, they have little faith that private sector suppliers can deliver at the scale they require. While they believe that tech has a role to play in the educational experience, they all see that role as supporting and supplementing, rather than fundamentally disrupting. Many reflect on the hyperbole that surrounded Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in recent years, which failed to make a significant difference to models of tuition.

While still grappling with this third industrial revolution of digital technology, some of the leaders we interviewed talked about the potential for fourth industrial revolution technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics for their organisation and the wider sector. Some were taking tentative steps with these emerging technologies, and ultimately hope they could be used to replace manual processes, improve productivity and even help triage calls to the police.

Explore the views of Public Sector leaders on technology:

  • We’ve still got care staff writing in a ring-binder that Mrs M hasn’t finished her water, and then on a new page a different carer is writing that Mrs M hasn’t finished her cup of tea. No-one is tracking trends and noticing that she’s about to become dehydrated. – Agency Chief Executive
  • In terms of technology, we’ve come from a bad position. Getting a chief constable to focus on their back office is hard when all they want to do is fight crime. It’s like pulling teeth, getting chief constables to talk about technology. – Police and Crime Commissioner
  • Technology is great when it’s supporting and supplementing, enhancing the educational experience. But replacing teachers with Ted Talks on a loop isn’t going to get you far. – Agency Director
  • We’re in the foothills of technology like machine learning and artificial intelligence. Some could be used on the front end, on call sheets, where it could help correlate risks better, and that could be a huge step forward. – Policing Leader
  • One of the main subjects over a drink with other vice-chancellors is ‘how much have you wasted on an HR system?’ – University Vice Chancellor
  • The public sector has a huge technology debt. People are working on old systems. – Policing Leader
  • We’ve spent a fortune and we’re not spending enough. We want to revamp all of our systems and there’s no supplier who can do it. We’ve told some ‘don’t give us a date you can’t make’ because they over-promise. – University Vice Chancellor
  • We’ve very behind on Robotic Process Automation and we’ve still got lots of people doing manual stuff. – Senior Civil Servant
  • The thing that gets me excited is tech, but it’s not happening. Look at the patient population – they are over 70 and not interested. The younger people are, but are less likely to need us. – NHS Finance Director
  • Everyone’s looking at robotics and I’m optimistic what it could do for productivity. – Senior Civil Servant
  • You think fax machines are retro like a chopper bike, and you can only get them on eBay, but they’re alive and well in the NHS. They’re the primary means of sharing patient data. – NHS Trust Non-Executive
  • We’re seeing a drop off in leisure, retail and other discretionary transport. Is it that people’s leisure and retail activities have changed? I’m thinking Netflix and Amazon Prime. And then there are changes in peoples’ working patterns. – Transport Agency Director
  • In defence, all the emerging stuff like data analytics and artificial intelligence creates a need for us to develop systems and tech to meet them as threats, as well as the opportunity to transform - not only our military capability but how we do business. – Senior Civil Servant

Qualitative research of this kind explores individual opinions, and the views expressed by our interviewees are very clearly their own. The State of the State reports on their views – it does not endorse them.

Did you find this useful?