O2: How the public sector is lighting the way with digital innovation

Source: PSE Feb/March 20 

Matt Spencer, Head of Public Sector at O2, spoke with PSE’s Matt Roberts about how the public sector is lighting the way in digital transformation and innovation.


Where is ‘innovation’ truly happening? For some, the word conjures up locations prefixed by ‘Silicon’; for others, it’s just another buzzword. What doesn’t always come to mind is the public sector. Yet it’s here that technological innovation is actually happening: practical, applicable innovation that’s making a genuine difference to people’s lives every day.  

At least, that’s the viewpoint of Matt Spencer, Head of Public Sector at O2. He took some time to speak with Public Sector Executive about exactly why he and the wider company are looking to the public sector to be the standard-bearers for real digital transformation.

Leading by example

Matt began with a simple question: “Why am I an optimist?

Previously, when the public sector has reflected on its abilities to innovate, it’s been hard on itself about how competently it can implement new technology. Certainly, procurement rules and risk mitigation can be more restrictive than in the private sector, and the responsibility of being entrusted with public money may encourage extra vigilance with new ideas. But the sector remains a determined innovator. In digital, data and technology services alone, the UK public sector spend surpasses £3.2bn since 2012:

“We see, when O2 brings new products to market and tries to deliver innovation, the public sector is often among the first in our customer base to adopt.”

“Public sector organisations are more able to be cutting edge than they believe themselves. The public sector can be very clear about what it’s trying to achieve, which is really encouraging.”

As an example of this innovation, Matt points to the work the Surrey & Sussex Police Service has undergone to build up their tech capabilities. Supported by the O2 team, they’ve rolled out biometric fingerprint identification to the front-line officers. It’s a really strong use of technology to make policing easier, and it doesn’t stop with the one service. In fact, by building gateway access to these back-end biometric systems and data, the Home Office has made the same innovations available for several forces across the UK to take advantage of.

“When we see behaviour like that starting to happen in central government, it’s encouraging for me that this is a market we can grow into. Thinking cloud-first is another example of the Government’s ability and desire to adopt [new digital technology].”

The move toward cloud-first technologies does come with some inherent risks. But, as Matt explains, the Government and wider public sector have shown a real commitment to investing in advanced data security.

“Again, the public sector often leads the private sector on security when it comes to moving systems and data to the cloud. It’s part of the reason O2 is doing more to support customers to access the cloud securely from their Gateway product.”

Digitising entire environments is no longer an impossibility in the public sector. O2 is working in partnership with infrastructure providers to realise cutting-edge technologies like 5G, and use sensor data to build smart cities. The public sector is trying proactively to understand the technology and find practical ways in which it can benefit both citizens and employees. This might be making more informed decisions about how infrastructure is deployed, modelling how traffic is moved around a city or transforming how pollution is controlled.

“This [innovation] environment is a really exciting space to be in and we’re now having the funding come through to the market to make it all possible. There are some things that government, and local government, are doing which they can really proud of.”

Credibility, reliability, reward

Committing to the idea of innovating is one thing. Following through to deliver the right technology to the hands of the right people is another, especially in the context of the uncertainties the sector now faces. But Matt is convinced that with the right support, the public sector can continue to capitalise on digital opportunities.

The sector has to be certain of the capabilities of its tech vendors. It’s no small ask, but Matt believes in the strength of the partnerships and technologies they’ve built.

 “As O2, we are part of a critical national infrastructure, and that comes with responsibilities. These include having the necessary security assurances within our network and having conversations with government about resilience. At a network level, we’re doing that.”

“An example of those partnerships in action are the new shared rural networks, where we’ve been collaborating with fellow operators and the Government to bring connectivity to isolated areas of the UK. This innovative project has delivered better results than the Government had originally envisaged, both in terms of coverage and cost. It’s targeting an increase of all-operator 4G landmass coverage to 92% by 2026, compared with 67% today.”

“That credibility as a provider helps to assure decision-makers about any risks. This in turn gives them the confidence to have bolder ideas and to be more innovative. When you take into consideration Telefónica’s global capabilities around security, it’s a good foundation to build on.”

Overcoming uncertainty

As Matt explains, dealing with public sector uncertainty is a constant consideration, but it’s one that exists in every market and shouldn’t act as a barrier to innovation. Instead, it’s a case of looking at the causes of uncertainty and working with customers to create flexible solutions that make a difference without big risks.

“It’s an old term, but we’re working together with the sector to futureproof what they’re doing. Building solutions that will continue to create positive change well into the future helps prolong the value of innovations and reduce the likelihood of expensive mistakes.

Uncertainty can come in a few forms:

“When we talk to central government, they’re much closer to central policy. We’ve learned that we have to help them put solutions in place that are of obvious value no matter who is in political power.

 “A big part of mitigating uncertainty is being ahead of the curve. The earlier the customer engages with the market, the more likely they are to get optimum futureproofed outcomes. It’s not just about speaking to O2, although of course we’d encourage that, but about being curious about what’s out there in terms of technologies and services. But we do still see some of our customer base can be reticent to start their engagement until they commence procurement.”

For Matt, having conversations early with potential suppliers is vital for achieving the best possible outcomes. Through early engagement with the market, customers can encounter different opinions and make a more informed choice when they go out to tender. If a customer can articulate exactly what they need, then it makes it easier for providers to suggest a fuller solution.

It’s a view backed up by the Government’s own guidelines:

Why talk to suppliers before you buy

If you’re planning to buy services for digital projects, you can choose to talk to suppliers before you start the buying process. This is sometimes called early market engagement or ‘pre-tender market engagement’ (PTME).

Early market engagement helps you:

  • understand your requirements better
  • write clearer requirements to publish to suppliers
  • understand how much the work could cost
  • understand how long the work could take
  • write a better business case for spending controls or internal approval

How to progress through the roadblocks

It’s not always a smooth path, though. As Matt attests, slowness to engage isn’t the only problem that public sector customers face. Often, when offers are accepted, even when signatures are in ink, deals hit problems at the next stage of implementation.

“As suppliers, we’re often asked to put implementation plans into our bids and we do that in a very considered way. We aim to take on as much of the hard work as we can to make sure things go smoothly, but in any new implementation the customer also has to be ready. This is something that we want to help customers better prepare for.”

“Often, in putting pen to paper, they’ve procured something that is hopefully going to save them a cost, improve their services to citizens and mitigate risk. These are all good things.”

“But an implementation lag means that they lose out on some of that value. They don’t benefit as quickly as they could and I think we can help in that specification and pre-tendering phase to think through what resources are needed to take fuller advantage.”

In the fast-paced digital technology market that O2 inhabits, this can be a real challenge. If the procurement team can’t keep pace with the market they’ll be limited to buying previous models and there’s a greater risk to the value. As Matt explains, if it’s too previous a model, the market has moved on before you’re out of the support stage.

It’s not just the technology which has moved on, but the thinking and strategy behind it; you’re buying something which the market has stopped developing any ideas about.

“Pace is really important. If we all work together better to get that implementation piece sorted, we will see it.”


Where we go next

Government rhetoric is that it’s now prepared to invest more in the public sector and address some of the impacts of austerity. Strategy is beginning to reflect this, with a push to get more front-line employees going into the public sector and increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the organisation as a whole.

But how do we make that a reality?

For Matt a good place to start is digital enablement. One survey O2 has conducted showed that £34bn of productivity improvement could be realised nationally with a digitally enabled workforce, including the public sector.

“If you look at the things the private sector and our private sector customers are leading –  like unified communications, flexible working and flexible locations – these things are equally important in the public sector.

“There are huge, costly estates to manage, with people having to be present in different locations every day. Clearly there’s an opportunity to make the average working day for front-line staff much easier and more efficient than it currently is.”

Firstly that means straightforward mobile working, where employees have access to all necessary software packages and core systems. If employees have got that then it enables them to become immediately more flexible. That means the Government can benefit from a much more flexible, engaged public sector workforce, and reset the boundaries of what is possible for them to achieve.

“That bit is really important.”

But it’s beyond these simple steps where things get really exciting for the public sector, and for Matt. Once you’ve got public sector workers connected, so much more is possible. O2’s work with Telefónica’s start-up incubator company Wayra has provided a few illustrations of what a digitally enabled future could really mean for citizens and staff.

One of the innovations which has come out of that is a partner company called Visionable.

“Visionable technology allows paramedics to conduct checks, collect data and communicate with consultants remotely using on-board equipment in the vehicle. It’s the basis for a ‘Smart Ambulance’ solution we’re trialling with the NHS.”

“Paramedics can diagnose patients and recommend the right treatment and next actions, which saves them vital time in critical situations. They can even use things like augmented reality to gather extra data. It’s a real, tangible, valuable piece of innovation that means professionals can do their job better, and ultimately save more lives. And it stems from having a collaborative relationship with the public sector that helps encourage and incubate good ideas.”

The infrastructure O2 has in place, along with the size and efficiency of their network, mean these sorts of initiatives can go beyond the theoretical and be brought to life in a practical, sustainable way.

As Matt explains, plenty of businesses will develop applications, sensors or networks. But it’s O2 who has put the emphasis on connecting them to the real needs of the public sector and the people that it serves, to be resilient, cost-effective and ubiquitous.

By working for low-risk, frictionless innovation, achieved with carefully planned and developed systems and complete with robust, secure back-end systems, O2 are making sure, as Matt puts it, that “the front-end users of the technology can focus on what they’re really supposed to be doing, which is helping citizens and spending their money wisely.”



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