Technology predictions for governments and the public sector

January traditions can be a mixed blessing. While my LinkedIn timeline is full of motivational messages from people re-energising for the new year, the annual ‘Blue Monday’ stories are on their way. Every January, newspapers tell us that the third Monday of the month is the most dismal day of the year due to an alignment of seasonal factors. That’s something to look forward to next week.

At Deloitte, our January tradition is the release of TMT Predictions. For fifteen years, this annual report has explored trends in Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) and how they will play out for the coming twelve months. Its analysis is based on hundreds of conversations with industry executives as well as tens of thousands of online interviews. That depth of research makes sure that our predictions are nuanced and grounded – we don’t foresee drone home deliveries or hovering skateboards anytime soon.

TMT Predictions 2016 covers seventeen trends ranging from the prospects for graphene to the growth in video games as a spectator sport. But what are the implications for government and the public sector? For me, there are three main takeaways from this year’s report.

First, the ways in which people are using their technology is changing – often in complex ways – and public bodies pursuing digital agendas need to adapt accordingly. Take how millennials use smartphones. While they spend 20 hours more per month on their mobiles than on laptops or desktop PCs, they still use the latter for up to 46 hours per month. Some 85 per cent of younger millennials in 13 developed world countries have access to laptops and 89 per cent have access to a smartphone. So while they may be the smartphone generation, millennials see their laptops and mobile phones as complementary. Public sector organisations designing their digital interaction with citizens should take note of factors such as these: while a mobile strategy is a good idea to engage millennials, a mobile-only strategy is not.

Just as the devices people use are changing, the way they use each device is changing too. The number of people who make no traditional phone calls on their smartphone is growing, and we predict it will reach 26 per cent of smartphone users this year. These ‘data exclusives’ are substituting voice calls for messaging and other data communications. Unsurprisingly, the highest proportion of data exclusives are found in the 18-24 age group, 31 per cent of whom do not make traditional calls in any given week. Again, public sector digital strategists need to reflect on trends such as these: a growing number of citizens may prefer and be more likely to engage with app-based interaction over talking to a call centre.

A second takeaway is that governments should heed the pace of change in cognitive technology. Born from the field of artificial intelligence, cognitive technologies allow computers to learn without programming, generate insight including predictions from data and understand normal speech. Our prediction is that 80 of the world’s largest organisational software providers will integrate cognitive technology into their products by the end of the year – an increase of 25 per cent since 2015 – and the potential for governments of this technology is far-reaching. Cognitive applications could allow decision makers to intimately understand the cost, impact and consequences of policy choices. They could be used in public service delivery settings ranging from transport to healthcare. And they could be used to support internal operations for government bodies such as HR, in the same ways that businesses will use them.

Some public bodies have already explored cognitive technologies with impressive results. When the US State of Georgia needed to digitise 40,000 pages of forms a month – some faxed, some handwritten and some even written in crayon – it found a solution that blended human intelligence with adaptive character recognition. Using cognitive technology meant that human workers taught the system to read data and become more accurate over time.

Elsewhere, a medical software company has developed a system to interpret physician’s handwritten notes and extract data such as allergies. Any technology that can figure out a doctor’s handwriting needs to be taken seriously.

The third public sector takeaway from TMT Predictions 2016 is that the government needs to tackle the gender gap in IT. We predict that fewer than 25 per cent of IT jobs worldwide will be held by women by the end of 2016, which is broadly the same or slightly worse than in 2015. While this is an important social issue, it is an economic one too: a study by Nominet suggests this gender gap costs the UK economy about £2.6 billion a year.

The education pipeline is one factor. In the 2013-14 academic year, only 17 per cent of UK computer science students were women. But the gender gap precedes university education. One UK survey showed that only 17 per cent of girls had learned any computer coding in school compared to 33 per cent of boys. Experts stress the role that parents need to take in encouraging girls younger than school age to be interested in technology.

As well as encouraging more women and girls in education, government could also take a leadership role as an employer – especially to support more senior women in IT roles. In the UK, 18 per cent of the IT workforce is female yet just nine per cent are in senior jobs. We do not need to look far to see that parity is achievable. In Sweden, 21 per cent of IT chiefs are female, in line with the 22 per cent of the IT workforce that are women.

Governments and public bodies need to track developments in technology because it is so central to their future. Many are moving to harness technology that will deliver public services with tighter budgets and in ways that meet the expectations of their increasingly connected citizens. But technology is so pervasive that governments also need to adapt their regulation, their approach to security and their role as employers. For anyone in government and the public sector who needs to scan the horizon and get to grips with the trends underway, TMT Predictions 2016 is online now.

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