Why I’m an optimist on public sector digital – and you should be too
After decades of investments, initiatives, and intense efforts towards digitalisation, it can sometimes feel like the main thing that the UK public sector has gained from its efforts, is a reputation for slothfulness. While commercial enterprises, or so the story goes, have leapt forward in transforming data from a cost centre to a value generator, our public bodies have failed to rise above their heritage of manual, analogue processes.
To me, this narrative is neither factually accurate nor rhetorically useful. It is true that there have been high-profile failures in digitalisation over the years – but, at the same time, we are too often blind to remarkable successes in this area that our daily lives rely on.
We have been operating digitally for decades
If the public sector’s ability to process billions in tax returns, securely maintain millions of vehicle and driver records, accurately track cross-border movement of agricultural produce, and store petabytes of sensitive justice, healthcare, and financial data, among other things, now feels unremarkable, it’s only because these processes have been operating digitally for decades.
In the long view, governmental bodies in particular were often among the first movers in taking advantage of early digital capabilities, and have continued to evolve, develop, and connect as the technological possibilities have broadened. While there is certainly much more to do, we should be hesitant to judge too harshly in the face of significant progress.
I suspect that this narrative of poor performance in modernisation and cloud transformation stems, at least in part, from a tendency to set public sector efforts in the context of private sector initiatives. This has two major consequences on how we perceive public sector digital.
How we perceive public sector digital
First, commercial projects often take place in greenfield settings with significantly higher error tolerances than public projects. To build from scratch and ask end-users to reset their relationships with systems is a luxury that public sector bodies can rarely afford. Continuity of service and consistency of record-keeping is a nice perk for a customer relationship, but a critical necessity for a person’s engagement with a social services provider. Likewise, data loss or miscalculation might be unfortunate for a retailer, but is catastrophic for a healthcare network.
Second, the necessity of transparency in the public sector – being accountable to the public purse – means that every single one of its digitalisation initiatives gets accounted for in a comparison with a private sector that can choose to reveal only its greatest successes. Those who work in the sector know the truth of how often commercial transformation projects meet with failure, but that insider knowledge matters little in weighing up the tide of public opinion.
It's possible, however, that another reason for the resilience of that narrative of failure comes from a reluctance to make an enthusiastic case for the progress that the public sector has achieved and the opportunities that yet lie ahead of it.
The need to put forward a proactive, positive counter-narrative
Against this, technologists who operate in the public sector can and should put forward a proactive, positive counter-narrative about the power of national digital infrastructure in addressing three of the sector’s most sought-after outcomes: modernising systems for efficiency and growth, innovating services to provide differentiated experiences, and building greater cyber resiliency. That is where current policy commitments around digitalisation, rightly, place their focus, and we in the technology space would do well to embolden and push forward that vision in the public discourse.
It should be a message that emphasises the long arc of public sector digitalisation: the mainframes that have delivered enduring value over the course of decades, and the ways in which that value can be carried forward and maximised in modernised architecture.
It should be a message which highlights the richness of the public sector’s digital marketplace: the benefits that G-Cloud and other CCS frameworks are bringing to all kinds of public bodies and the transformative impacts they are delivering to the public.
And it should be a message which celebrates what makes the public sector’s approach to digital different, important, and impressive: technology rising to meet critical requirements around security, stability, and accuracy, and therefore safeguarding fundamental aspects of civil society.
I suggested earlier that the story of digital failure in the British public sector is not just inaccurate, but rhetorically damaging. If we are timid about the successes that the sector has achieved and shy of the benefits that fresh transformation can bring in usability, safety, sustainability, and interconnectedness for society as a whole, we risk limiting the energy and investment that can be put into it in the future.
The ultimate stakeholder for this work, after all, is the Great British public. With their buy-in, public sector digitalisation has huge potential to raise standards across the country.