The UK has an ambitious aim; to be a science and technology superpower by 2030. For this to come to fruition, all aspects of UK public sector operations must embrace, live and breathe this mantra. Yet as things stand, technologically at least, we're in danger of falling short. Why? Because the public sector's current technology stack and ways of working are the antithesis of cutting-edge technology.
From analogue to digital
A 2018 study1 found that just 11% of public sector professionals said 50% or more of their services were online, meaning the majority of services are still manual. While the pandemic has undoubtedly improved those numbers, we know from our research that efficiency and transformation are being held back by outdated systems and a lack of strategy.
The good news, there's a strong appetite to embrace digital technologies and enablers such as self-serve, with 97% of public sector respondents agreeing that delivering services digitally was a key ambition. So, what's holding us back?
We asked public sector representatives this very question in our Public Sector Attitudes Towards Digital Self-Service Report, with 44% stating that key barriers were preventing their organisations from widening service delivery, while 30% conceded that their organisation was 'missing key opportunities', and that improvements could be made. Only 23% said their organisation had 'embraced all opportunities' to deliver digital access to services. That number will need to be higher if the UK is to become a tech superpower and digitally competitive on a global scale.
A strategic imperative
Part of the issue is due to strategy. Covid undoubtedly skewed many well-meaning and constructed strategies in all walks of professional and public life, but our research also showed that 64% of respondents don't have an up-to-date strategy. How can we modernise if there's no workable plan in place?
There are also more tactical and practical issues to contend with. When it comes to addressing specific barriers, nearly two in three (62%) said migration from legacy systems was their number one issue. Add to this changing customer behaviour (51%) and lack of in-house skills, technology and resources (also 51%), it's not hard to see that the UK's tech stack is behind the times.
The cost conundrum
Cost – often a prohibitive factor came in next – with the cost of transformation (49%) and lack of funding (39%) cited as specific barriers. Despite the government dedicating an extra £8bn of spending towards digital, data and technology transformation by 2025, thanks to inflation and rising interest rates, councils are losing money in real terms as funds don't go so far. Side-lining a significant chunk of budget for a project that doesn't necessarily have organisational buy-in (39% cited this as an issue), or the patience to see a return on investment (ROI, 20%), means challenging these barriers is becoming increasingly difficult.
The above shows we're stuck between a rock and a hard place. The desire for change is there, but the barriers are significant. So how can we change this status quo?
A mentality shift
In my view, we need to stop thinking about transformation projects as long and drawn out, and reframe our approach to become more agile, focusing on incremental improvements. For starters, more must be done to identify and access the right skills so that legacy systems can be retired. Like our transition to a low-carbon future, a hybrid approach can also be adopted as services switch from the current manual emphasis to a more digitised system, enabling users to learn the systems gradually. Non-digital alternative offerings are helpful for those consumers who wish, or are not able to access digital alternatives, meaning the new digital offering frees up human hours. Yet, those who wish to self-serve are able to access the services they need directly. This will drive efficiency and provide better services to those who require them.
Say no to stagnation
The fact is that organisations know that transformation is crucial, or it will lead to stagnation. Time and resource savings (84%), improved internal efficiencies (78%), and reduced operating costs (66%) were all cited as benefits that could be tapped into – but again, that relies on getting going. It's very easy to talk a good game when it comes to transformation, as let's face it, it's a broad topic and tricky details can be swept aside. So, my final thoughts I leave to you are:
- Get your strategy sorted - spell out why it's needed, timescales and ROI. Use this as an opportunity to identify what exactly is required – be this infrastructure or skills
- Get organisational buy-in – engage stakeholders and warn them about the potential pain points. It's not an overnight fix
- Break it down – from quick wins like implementing self-serve options through to the more wholesale changes such as retiring a technology stack, ensure that as you make changes, staff are trained and happy with the systems/processes, so efficiency remains
- Roll it out and learn – Rome wasn't built in a day, and modernising service delivery will not be either. Using the little-by-little approach, learnings can be implemented from phase two, theoretically helping to smooth out the process
- Take action! – this can't be put off forever – the fact of the matter is, our worlds are becoming increasingly digitised, and our service offerings need to reflect this.
We have generations of digital natives, and we need to be able to accommodate them and free up humans to do the more complex work. We can only talk around the topic for so long – changes are required so now is the time to get ahead and bed in, to reap the benefits we know are possible.
Read our full report findings
Download the Public Sector Attitudes Towards Digital Self-Service Survey