UK: The Ascent Of Digital – Can Digital Technology Accelerate The Transformation Of Public Services?

Last Updated: 28 July 2015
Article by Karen Taylor and Joel Bellman

Since the turn of the 21st Century government has been supporting its citizens through on-line services and electronic data capture. More recently, the public sector has begun adopting digital processes and operating models in response to unpreceded cost pressures and rising public expectation.  While previous Thoughts from the Centre blogs have focused on the use of technology in the health and social care sector, this week we consider Deloitte's research into the progress made by the public sector as a whole in embracing the digital revolution, to identify the broader systemic issues and solutions which the NHS and social care might learn from.

Between January and March 2015, Deloitte surveyed a cross section of sector leaders involved in digital transformation.  Deloitte's report, The Ascent of Digital,1 is based on over 400 responses, from a wide range of public sector organisations across the UK, spanning local and central government, the NHS, police, further education and higher education.  The findings demonstrate the progress made to date, the challenges and constraints to adoption and some of the solutions to more pervasive adoption.

Cost pressures, customer demand and central government directives are the top three drivers for digital transformation. Although 48 per cent of leaders believe their organisation's investment in digital initiatives has increased over the last year, the main barriers are insufficient funding to support new initiatives alongside competing priorities on management time, with managers lacking some of the skills needed to champion digital transformation. 

In terms of procurement public sector leaders frequently find that:

  • Regulations, lack of flexibility and legacy contracts were the most significant obstacles to digital-friendly procurement
  • Traditional approaches to procurement need to change to accommodate the exponential nature of digital transformation, especially to enable agile development and de-restrict terms and conditions
  • While citizens are front of mind in service transformation they are rarely at the heart of service design
  • Only 10 per cent of organisations rely on in-house capability alone, 74 per cent blend in-house and contracted resources to develop their digital services.

Respondents acknowledge, however, that the most critical barriers to digital adoption are nothing to do with technology but are about people, specifically the skills and attitudes of staff and service users, and the inherent culture within their organisations. Indeed, workforce and skills were seen as the most challenging area for digital evolution. More specifically, that realising the potential of digital transformation will require public sector organisations to develop and acquire new skills, including:

  • Research, analytical and  technology skills
  • Agile and iterative project management skills
  • User experience skills
  • Commercial and financial modelling and management skills.

Given the relatively constrained levels of public sector pay, the July Budget announcement on freezing public sector pay, and a private sector economy that is rebounding strongly, attracting the skills and talent needed is likely to remain a significant challenge for the public sector.

Critically, only 32 per cent of respondents believe their leadership has sufficient skills for meeting the challenge of digitally transforming public services, especially when leaders need to manage competing priorities. Historically, public bodies have got used to change being slow-moving and subject to rigorous gateways, with timescales set in stone.  With the exponential advances in digital technology, public bodies, are increasingly find that their governance regime is itself a barrier to digital transformation.

Collaborative processes, business acumen and technological savviness, were seen as the three most highly-prized capabilities for public sector digital transformation. Deloitte research also identified a number of interventions that could have a big impact on overcoming the barriers to change. For example:

  • Funding specific services that improve targeted outcomes rather than large, one-off, projects
  • Shifting to open standards for data and interfaces
  • Obtaining benchmark and baseline data to inform decision-making changing the working environment to stimulate collaboration and shock the system
  • Putting user research at the heart of transformation dialogue
  • Appointing agitators into key posts
  • Partnerships with universities, employers and suppliers
  • In-house academies and training programmes
  • Accessing skills in the community through open data, transparency and co-creation.

Government's digital era is progressing at a relentless pace and the scale of response by public bodies has varied depending on the extent to which they are able to tackle the issues and barriers identified above, namely culture, workforce, procurement and leadership. As a result there is a wide spectrum of digital maturity across the public sector. The NHS is no exception. Success for the NHS, as for the wider public sector, will increasingly hinge on its ability to overcome these issues and barriers and adapt, embrace and take advantage of all that digital transformation can offer.



The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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