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Keeping pace?

Government’s technology transformation

Technology is a key driver for public sector transformation, making government departments more effective and public services accessible for those who rely on them.

Snapshot research with 815 civil servants has identified their views on the role and adoption of technologies, skills and training, as well as confidence levels in dealing with cyber-attacks. Whilst the results tell us that there is an appreciation of the impact and risks of technology developments, and progress is underway, the public sector appears to be struggling to keep pace.

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Role of technology in government

Respondents were asked which technologies have the most potential to impact on their department and on service delivery. Transformation of existing IT (88 per cent), cyber security (81 per cent) and data analytics (73 per cent) were the top three for greatest effect on the department. For service delivery, online interaction with citizens and cyber security were joint first (72 per cent), followed by transformation of existing IT (63 per cent) and mobile technology (60 per cent).

On the other hand, digital currencies, blockchain, Internet of things and augmented reality are viewed as the least likely to impact either department operations or service delivery. These new technologies may have the power to revolutionise how we do things, however our survey suggests that while IT professionals in the public sector are aware of them, they perceive them to be well down the list of priorities.

But is there a need for the public sector to be at the ‘leading edge’ or at least be ‘faster followers’? Transforming existing IT, the clear priority for survey respondents, and a focus of existing investment is arguably more likely to generate service improvements for citizens and drive savings internally.

Equally the use of advanced data analytics to drive better insights for example, is now well established and delivering real benefits for many public sector organisations.


Action

It will be important of course for public sector CIOs to keep a “watching brief” on new technology. Technology that was new one year can become mainstream the next as functionality matures and the price point reduces.

Adoption of technology

When asked which technologies they had explored for adoption, respondents highlighted those which might be considered more ‘mainstream’: transformation of IT (78 per cent), cyber security (64 per cent), cloud computing (59 per cent), mobile technology (56 per cent) and data analytics (54 per cent).

Interestingly, while 72 per cent felt that online interaction with citizens had potential for the greatest impact on service delivery, only 46 per cent have explored the area for adoption.

It’s a well-worn stereotype that people working within the public sector believe they are behind the private sector in many areas. Our survey backs up this perception in relation to the adoption of new technologies; whilst 35 per cent felt they were behind others in the public sector, 64 per cent felt they were behind private sector organisations.

Barriers

It’s perhaps not surprising that lack of budget (82 per cent) and perceived costs (74 per cent) are highlighted as the two greatest barriers to new technology adoption: austerity continues to bite and many IT functions are focused on doing more with less rather than investing in new and perhaps untried and untested technologies.

There is also the ‘fear of failure’ culture (42 per cent) within some public sector organisations that tends to discourage innovation. In our view, another factor that discourages technology adoption is procurement as experimenting with new technologies doesn’t follow the traditional specify/procure/implement process. It can also be difficult and time consuming to encourage procurement departments to consider alternative approaches.


Action

The key lessons from our experience that help accelerate technology adoption:

  • Develop a coherent business case that clearly describes the benefits from the investment. This can help achieve buy-in and ensure the project is appropriately prioritised.
  • Have a clear Digital Strategy that supports the delivery of the business strategy: leadership and direction are at the core of driving successful technology adoption.
  • Involve citizens and service users in the design and delivery of new technology. This is critical for realising benefits and delivering ‘fit for purpose’ solutions.
  • Work closely with procurement teams to encourage technology innovation and accelerate the procurement process.

Cyber

The survey was conducted approximately one month after one of the biggest cyber-attacks ever within the UK public sector with the WannaCry attack on the NHS.

The survey presents a conflicting message in the response to questions of cyber security.

When asked which technology developments have the greatest potential to impact on the department and service delivery, cyber security was flagged by 81 per cent and 71 per cent respectively. This shows a significant realisation of the real and present threat and potential for impact.

However almost half (44 per cent) are not sure or do not have confidence in their organisation’s ability to withstand a cyber-attack. Interestingly the more senior civil servants are, the more likely they are to express confidence. This could be due to the senior group having more visibility of what the department is doing organisation-wide to reduce the risk of cyber-attack, or it could be down to this group having less awareness of the risks and exposure that exists.

The survey showed that 56 per cent were confident which could be attributed to an increased awareness amongst users, strengthening of cyber security policy across government and more stringent compliance requirements e.g. GDPR and NIS Directive.


Action

It is clear that the public sector understands the importance of strong and robust cyber security technology.

We would encourage organisations to adopt a holistic approach to cyber security including people, processes and technology, and use the clear interest in cyber to promote awareness amongst staff.

Skills and training

Skills

Digital skills gaps provide a barrier to adoption according to 68 per cent of respondents.

For many CIOs, figuring out the answer as to where to invest in skills can be challenging. The IT industry is constantly morphing with skills that were readily available a month ago being in short supply today. There is a clear move within the public sector towards user-centred design, Agile and data analytics, and it is perhaps not surprising that these figure large in terms of skills gaps in the survey.

In our experience an added complication is the disparity in salaries between IT staff in the public and private sector. There is a fear factor of training people up only for them to get a better paid job elsewhere.

Beyond the IT team, digital skills for the entire workforce need to be considered and addressed. One respondent suggested that there is a need for a standardised set of digital skills for all staff while another pointed to the need for more structured programmes to support upskilling.

Investment in skills, for both the IT team and wider workforce, needs to be linked to the organisation’s IT Strategy. Once an organisation has established what it wants to achieve, it can then establish a plan, including the volume and type of skills required. This will typically be a mix of in-house and outsourced resource dependent upon the nature of the project. Many public sector clients we work with are training staff up as scrum masters and in Agile more generally due to the volume of projects using this approach.

Training

‘On the job’ training continues to be the most important means through which civil servants acquire the digital skills they need to perform their job effectively (64 per cent).

Given the pervasiveness of technology in the workplace and at home, a potential working assumption is that all staff have, or will acquire on the job, the digital skills they need. This a potentially dangerous assumption. There are still many people within the workplace who are uncomfortable with technology. If they have not been given the right support and training, the risk is that they will become less effective in the workplace and the benefits of the organisation’s investment in technology will not be fully realised.

Action

  • Involve HR professionals in skills analysis, including the digital skills required for the entire workforce as well as the more specific skills for the IT team. The principles behind training needs analysis are still as relevant as they ever were: identifying people’s current skill levels and any gaps is crucial to IT benefits delivery.
  • Embed a structured training programme based on the skills analysis.
  • Consider partnerships with universities, local employers and trusted suppliers. Some of the skills needed in the public sector can be accessed in small bites. For example, skills necessary with particular new technologies do not require long-term continuity of resource. External resources can deliver pace, capability and, with larger suppliers, an element of risk transfer that justifies the higher cost in the short and medium term.
  • In-house academies and training programmes can be used to upskill the existing workforce. Well-designed programmes can have a big impact on culture and levels of buy-in. Delivering programmes or partial programmes via e-learning will be time efficient and help to keep skills up-to-date.

Key findings

  • Civil servants appreciate the potential of technology developments in supporting their work.
  • The more ‘mainstream’ technology developments are the focus for exploration and adoption.
  • Whilst online interaction with citizens is seen as crucial for the majority, less than half have explored this area.
  • Lack of budget, perceived high costs, and skills shortages are the top barriers to technology adoption.
  • Only 19 per cent feel that their organisation is in line or ahead of private sector organisations when asked about technology adoption.
  • Cyber is well accepted as a present risk however almost half are not sure or not confident of their organisation’s ability to deal with a cyber-attack.
  • Skills gaps exist and there is an over-reliance on learning digital skills ‘on the job’.  

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