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Six ways to build stronger foundations for digital public services

By Sean Massey, Managing Director, Central Government, Civica

With most people restricted to their homes for nearly a year, the UK public sector has been forced to adapt and work in a more agile way. The pandemic has significantly shifted the public’s attitudes to digital, data and technology and has shown government decision makers that citizens expect more innovative online services.

Alarmingly, the UK continues to drop down the UN’s E-government rankings, falling from top spot in 2016 to seventh in 2020. As outlined in our recent joint report with techUK, Rebuilding our foundations – why the UK’s digital innovation agenda needs a modernised baseline to regain momentum, we need a reignited focus on the adoption of advancing technologies to see the UK climb these rankings again. To do so, public sector organisations must address the pre-existing challenges that caused us to lose top spot.

To revitalise public confidence, Civica’s Agile approach and GovTech platform supports partners in the government to address these challenges quickly. Here are six steps government should take to build that much-needed momentum and lay a strong foundation for digital public services.

1. Understand your audience

It’s clear that the public won’t accept poor digital experiences. Even before COVID-19 hit, there was significant demand for modernised digital public services, which has only escalated this past year. Research from our report highlighted that a fifth (21%) of people interacted more with online public services following COVID-19.

This means the government needs to deliver digital services at scale. It has to be done in a tailored manner which meets the varying needs of different demographics. The public sector sits on a wealth of data, which can be tapped into to personalise communication and delivery so every citizen is able to use crucial services in a way that suits them.

2. Tackle technical debt

Refreshing legacy IT estates and tackling technical debt is crucial to driving public sector transformation. Cheaper and/or stopgap technology solutions may fix problems temporarily but prove more costly in the future. In fact, some public organisations may still be paying for legacy tech that they don’t use or have forgotten about, which is draining budgets that could be better spent. Organisations must tackle this issue to invest in more modern and agile solutions.

Focusing on modernising legacy applications and tackling technical debt can lead to more personalised public service delivery, better-informed policy making, evidence-based decision making, and improved value.

3. Make co-ordination key

In our report, several public sector leaders raised concerns about cooperation and coordination between departments. The need for an overarching strategy is clear, as individual departments have competing priorities about the use of technology and data.

Without this consistent baseline, departments will struggle to share data effectively and make data driven decisions about how to improve services. Delivering a cross departmental model for the Civil Service Digital Workplace, that draws on best practice, is critical to ensuring that decentralised working does not become an obstacle to innovation and technology success.

4. Lead with transparency

Many respondents within the report queried the lack of vision and leadership from the UK government in attempting to modernise its public services. In fact, 44% said that public services make good use of technology to enhance lives, but more could be done.

To that end, government could consider publishing a UK Public Service Technology Road Map for the next three years. This could help both experts and citizens see how services are evolving to deliver better experiences and provide guidance on what systems and technologies can be modernised and how.

5. Prioritise investment

To meet citizen expectations, public service organisations need to identify and prioritise where investment is needed most. The consensus from our report with TechUK is that while front-end transformation has powered ahead in recent years, transformation of back office tech has lagged behind. When we asked UK citizens what was holding back the delivery of innovative public services, a significant 38% claimed that poor connectivity and infrastructure, such as broadband capacity and public Wi-Fi, was the biggest challenge.

If government updates technology infrastructure to support the adoption and implementation of modern technologies, more services can be rolled out quickly, securely and effectively, delivering the most benefit to end-users.

6. Provide necessary education

After a year that’s changed the way we all live, work and communicate, the UK has a once in a lifetime chance to reimagine the use of technology within public services. However, nearly a quarter of UK citizens said they do not think there is a main benefit that digital technology can bring to their local community. This highlights the need to educate citizens on the benefits of digital technology, and its applications within public services.

By being clear on how technology is helping, public service bodies can help improve understanding of what services are available, how they are accessed and the positive impact for individuals and the wider community.

Regaining momentum

Becoming innovative doesn’t have to mean massive overhauls. But to make a difference to the lives of citizens, we must address the current challenges of legacy IT and technical debt now. This will help to lay the foundations and free-up investment for significant service and platform improvements. It’s the only way to ensure the proper deployment of digital services and emerging technologies to deliver value to all.