Oracle: How IT modernisation can free up the civil service to help ‘build back better’
Whitehall has a clear opportunity to capitalise on IT modernisation and following the publication of the ‘Declaration on Government Reform’ there is now the political will to see it through. While much of the spotlight often falls on digital applications used by the general public, an area often overlooked is how moving to cloud-based applications can make the UK Government’s back-office systems quicker and easier to use, and deliver significant savings and benefits in the process.
The reality is this technology can significantly improve the productivity and working lives of civil servants, make policy development and decision making more effective by rooting it in data, and above all, enable citizens to be better served by the institutions that work on their behalf.
Therefore, as the Government continues to drive IT modernisation across departments and public sector bodies, procurers and providers alike need to work better together to leverage the tangible impact of cloud-based applications such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), Human Capital Management (HCM) and Customer Relationship Management (CRM), as they become more of a day-to-day feature of Whitehall. These modern systems are quick, automated and easy to use. They can deliver tangible cost savings and, crucially, free up significant time for civil servants usually spent on manual tasks to focus instead on more critical tasks such as helping the UK to recover from the pandemic and ‘building back better’, particularly important as the UK heads towards a three-year spending review in the autumn.
Take the payment of invoices and management of budgets as examples, these are just two areas where the valuable time of civil servants could be saved by the use of automated cloud-based ERP software. Departments process millions of invoices every year, with many of these taking additional effort to resolve. Similarly, with civil service staff numbers on the rise since 2016 and with regular movement between departments, the Government could significantly reduce staff under and overpayments, in addition to a more seamless user experience in accessing tools and software during onboarding and beyond.
In many cases as new services are procured, it will be more appropriate to buy off-the-shelf, cloud-based services ‒ providing access to the newest technologies that are highly secure and autonomous ‒ than for the Government to develop its own systems.
This is where the Government can learn from the dynamism of successful businesses. When a business considers whether to build or buy a new application, their first port of call is typically to look to the existing market and invest in tech that is tried, tested and can rapidly scale for the task at hand.
Beyond looking at specific products, the Government can also learn from organisations that are adopting a single data model across their back-office by having a single applications provider. This makes it far easier to develop a single source of the truth and gain a true understanding of the way the business operates, as well as making it far easier to automate cross-functional processes when this is coupled with AI and machine learning capabilities.
But as new services are procured, the Government needs to provide greater clarity on when it is appropriate to buy off-the-shelf services and when it is better for the Government to develop its own systems. And the presumption should be in favour of off-the-shelf, unless there is a compelling reason why in-house, custom-build would be preferrable.
We must not forget that the prize is huge: as smarter procurement could ultimately save the Government and taxpayer large sums. Greater efficiency in IT systems would free up the civil service to accelerate the UK’s recovery from the pandemic. More importantly, it will also ensure that citizens are better served by Whitehall. However, this can only happen if the right tech is procured in the first place and with wider strategic goals in mind.
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