I recently had the privilege of attending the TechUK annual public sector IT Strategy conference at County Hall in London. This conference is an annual event entitled ‘Building the Smarter State’ and is seen as an opportunity for senior Political and Civil service figures to set out their vision for the role they expect the private sector to take in the Digital Transformation of both national and Local government.
This year’s conference had as its theme ‘People and Place’. The significance of this should not be missed as it goes to the heart of the problem both industry and the public sector are experiencing in their efforts to realise the opportunities for ‘digital transformation’ to translate into real benefits for the people and communities to whom we are ultimately responsible.
So why ‘People and Place’? Paradoxically perhaps, it is because people and certainly places do not specify, procure and operate IT systems. Consequently, systems are rarely designed for the people they are about and almost never to make collaboration between different organisations (within a place) a primary goal.
It was a technology event and so there was much talk about exciting new innovations: AI, robotic process automation, machine learning and big data all got plenty of airtime. Blockchain, the solution for which there is no appropriate problem obviously got a mention and there were some rueful acknowledgements about the number of concepts proved but not scaled in practice. But for me the theme of the conference reflects the biggest challenge in making the next generation of digital services effective.
Obviously, technology investments need to make organisations more productive and services more convenient to access, but to be genuinely transformational they need more than a conventional zero sum calculation of Return on Investment. I suggest two additional tests:
The People test: Will this development empower individuals to take more control and responsibility for their own data and its administration.
The Place test: Does the proposed approach make it easier for different organisations to collaborate in the interests of the individuals and communities they serve.
These tests are easy for technology to meet but extremely challenging for current organisational hierarchies, budget structures and business models to engage with. A question asked on the day goes to the heart of the matter: what do we do if we know a system will save lives but don’t know which budget it should come out of? Work that out and the technology is already there.