Workforce planning is an issue that affects all businesses. Whether it's scaling up to meet increased pressure or the annual peaks and troughs of seasonal demand, it's common for firms affected by inconsistent supply and demand to struggle with servicing levels.

In the private sector, this pressure can often be eased by temporary workers – be that students looking to earn cash over the summer, or temps happy to slot in seamlessly to operations. In the public sector, this immersion is not always as formulaic. Budgets play a considerable part, and while our recent research, 'Public Sector Attitudes Towards Digital Self-Service' showed that 35% of respondents do use agencies to help manage demand, this effectively is a last resort.

A complex resource dilemma

The crux of the matter is that public sector organisations are cash-strapped and time-poor. A recent TUC poll revealed that 36% of key workers in the public sector cite low pay as a reason for wanting to quit. Poor work/life balance (23%) was another issue, alongside a lack of career progression (23%). Add to this unfilled vacancies in key areas – such as the NHS running at nearly 10%, and it paints a gloomy picture of operations. 

It, therefore, begs the question – why aren't we trying to automate more functions? With grand ambitions of being a science and technology superpower, the UK's public offices should be living and breathing this mantra – but how can they if, as our research suggests, barriers remain to digitalisation and a clear strategy is lacking?

Making change happen instead of making do

Despite resource being a recurring issue, our research showed responses were often centred around trying to make do. When we asked public sector organisations how they cater for peaks and troughs in service demand, restructuring internal resources to support (54%) was the most common response. Next came accepting an increase in call waiting and turnaround times (43%), with increasing staff overtime (36%) rounding off the top three. In essence, short-term, reactive options.

For the UK to successfully manage the changing needs of its population, we must do more than ask people to wait longer on the phone or to be seen, or pay overtime to plug a gap. We need to not only provide services that are slick and diverse, but also ensure the people behind these services are not overworked and undermotivated.

Prioritise accessible and impactful tech enablers first

One way to help manage operations is to leverage technology add-ons, such as open banking, when it comes to finances. Just 8% of public sector organisations offer open banking to assess customers' abilities to afford payment plans or arrears clearing. This simple way to verify incomings and outgoings could help influence how debt is paid back. Yet, our research shows tailored repayment plans (62%), referral to debt support/charities (59%) and payment holidays (23%) are offered as first points of call, over a more comprehensive primary financial assessment.

It also appears that open banking is not a digital priority moving forward. Digital inclusion (57%), financial inclusion (46%) and bespoke app development (9%) all come before open banking (9%) when asked which of the tools were on organisations' radars for future collections. While providing digital diversification in terms of apps to enable repayments is a good thing, it would also make sense to leverage less costly options, such as open banking to again assess a financial situation. Running before we can walk may prove to be unwise.

Remember, progress over perfection

The UK's public sector infrastructure is arguably at a tipping point. It needs to modernise, but budgets, time and resources are all serious blockers that stand in the way. Therefore, small steps must be taken to help move us closer to what we perceive as the ultimate end goal – a digital panacea. Integrating tech such as open banking can enable this – speeding up processes so customers are provided with affordable repayment plans, which they're more likely to stick to. In theory, fewer defaults help free up employees to do more strategic work elsewhere. Operations become more efficient, call waiting times improve, and overtime isn't relied upon, freeing up budget and resource in return.

Of course, this won't result in savings which will pay for transformation projects. Still, it will help move the public sector towards a more digital-first mantra, alongside partially freeing up employees. Eventually, more automated operations will deliver this possibility, but until then, incremental, simple integrations could help solve broader workforce issues.


Around 1 in 3 key workers in the public sector have taken steps to leave their profession or are actively considering it | TUC

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