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How public sector IT can exploit the last 'big things'

Source: PSE April/May 2019

Martin Ferguson, director of policy and research at Socitm, outlines the technology-related trends to look out for in the public sector throughout 2019.

IT pundits often make overly-ambitious guesses as to how fast ‘next big thing’ technologies will be deployed. One story, related in Socitm’s recent policy briefing on technology-related trends for the public sector, comes from Jos Creese. Back in 2009, when he was CIO in Hampshire County Council, he recalls being told that remotely-hosted cloud computing services would have replaced everything else and cut at least 30% from his IT operating costs by 2015. Whilst cloud computing has made big in-roads, a decade after those predictions, it remains far from ubiquitous.

This article draws on Socitm’s briefing to get behind the usual technology hype. The focus here is to uncover those technologies that will disrupt and change the way that we deliver on public sector priorities for better outcomes.

Funding cuts, especially for councils that have borne the brunt of public sector austerity, may be a driving force behind much of the changes and policy reshaping currently underway. However, these cuts are the trigger for the public sector to address those priorities that cannot only shield the public from the worst effects of the cuts but, more importantly, can make a real difference to people’s lives; to local economies, social wellbeing, the environment, education, jobs, democracy, transport, public health, and more. Each of these will be pursued differently in individual councils, depending on the range and scale of services provided, geography, demographics, socio-economic characteristics, politics, partnerships and collaboration, appetite for risk, and more.

Currently, fashionable technologies such as blockchain, autonomous vehicles, drones, and quantum computing may have a role to play in the future, but they are not ready yet for significant deployment in the public sector. For example, blockchain – the digital ledger system best-known as the technology used to manage cryptocurrencies – could have applications in large-scale, high volume digital programmes. HM Land Registry is undertaking research on its application. It could also have uses in authenticating citizens and in managing health and care records, but these remain some way off.

The nine technology-related trends:

  • Cyber resilience
  • Data ‘mash-ups’ and information analytics
  • Virtual and augmented reality
  • Partnership and sharing locally
  • The role of IT will change
  • Cloud and new IT supply models
  • Internet of Things
  • Machine learning and artificial intelligence
  • Low-code and no-code

With IT becoming increasingly embedded in all areas of the public sector, cyber resilience leads our list of nine technology-related trends for 2019. The sophistication and volume of digital attacks will continue to grow, meaning that cyber resilience will require more spending and effort, as well as being part of business continuity and emergency planning.

Our list includes some specific technologies which are ready for public sector adoption. These include cloud computing, which is indeed allowing organisations to close their own data centres – just a few years later than originally predicted. Our research suggests that the coming year will be a tipping point for public sector adoption of cloud services, allowing for the introduction of new IT supply and funding models, and the need for a new relationship with suppliers in areas such as data management and cyber protection.

Embedded Internet of Things technologies are ready to be used to monitor buildings, roads, and IT equipment, but we must insist on their compliance with open standards to allow for interoperability and data sharing. Virtual reality and augmented reality technologies have several interesting applications, from helping to design roads and buildings to developing personal services for citizens.

And there are numerous potential ways in which we might use machine learning and artificial intelligence, from ‘robotic process automation’ for repetitive tasks, to chatbots dealing with customer queries – which could also take advantage of virtual reality work. A few local authorities are pioneering the use of these technologies, demonstrating that they are ready for wider deployment.

Several of the trends on our list focus on ways of using technology. We see a growing role for data ‘mash-ups’ which combine sets of information to carry out deeper analysis. While this is not a new idea, making sophisticated use of our data will help us use limited budgets and to allocate and resource services more effectively. The advent of strengthened data protection rules under GDPR has led organisations to pay more attention to the data they hold and the opportunities for generating useful intelligence for service planning and transformation.

Many local authorities already share resources and technology, and there is potential for more use of partnership working. Managing such services means IT leaders will need diplomatic and strategic advocates to navigate politics, culture, and legacy barriers, along with funding constraints. Meanwhile, ‘low-code’ and ‘no-code’ programming options are allowing organisations to customise systems without the risks, costs, and slow development times that this has usually required.

As many of the trends we have chosen indicate, we believe that the role of IT is continuing to change. In the past, technology has been a cost centre responsible for managing its own operations. But increasingly, IT works to support and transform specific services, taking advantage of the opportunities from digital technologies. For IT leaders, this means working out how to move away from the legacy of existing systems, which are often costly and limited in function, but on which organisations often depend.

However, ‘legacy’ is not just about turning off server hardware and buying cloud computing services, but also changing ways of working. It is about rethinking the preference for big traditional suppliers rather than smaller cloud-based solution innovators and providers; updating policies, processes, and practices designed for a past era; and learning to work as agents of change rather than managers of data centres.

Like everyone else in the public sector, technology leaders need to consider the impact of Brexit. The run-up has already made it harder to recruit technologically-skilled staff, and announcements from vehicle makers and other manufacturers suggest there will be significant impacts on some local economies, potentially meaning some councils have to do even more with even less if business rate revenues are hit. With new autonomy on trade and politics, the UK may become a bigger target for cyberattacks from foreign governments.

There are also opportunities: with central government preoccupied with how Britain leaves the European Union, individual public service organisations are having to take their own initiatives. Used intelligently, technology can enable significant improvements, such as dramatically increasing productivity through flexible working and deployment of digital tools.

Socitm believes that public sector IT leaders need to talk the language of their organisations rather than their fellow technologists and cultivate business skills as much as IT knowledge. While they need to keep up with the latest trends and use their judgement as to how it might apply to their planning, it is often the ‘last big thing’ technologies that were hyped a few years ago – such as cloud computing – that offer the biggest opportunities in the coming year.

Complex business priorities for the public sector will determine IT priorities. We have mostly gone beyond a narrow view of IT as a cost centre, to a perspective of IT as a strategic enabler of redesign and delivering better outcomes in the communities and places that we serve.

Socitm is a society for digital and IT leaders, governed by its members and driven by their needs, benefiting all those who use IT to deliver services for the public benefit.


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