Public Services > Central Government

Data is the 21st Century’s oil. And the government must ensure its engine is ready

Published 20 December 2016

Aingaran Pillai, chief executive and founder of Zaizi, says effective use of data in government is the future. But Whitehall needs to take a close look at its digital transformation processes, because the cracks can no longer be papered over


2016 has certainly been a year of unexpected political results, the largest one (this side of the Atlantic anyway) has been Brexit. The fact that many did not see the UK voting to leave the EU has initially sent shockwaves across government.

Many point a finger at the government, suggesting they have no plan to unravel Britain from what has been a very complex and long standing relationship. While the country awaits a step-by-step ‘get out plan’, what is clear is that the UK needs to boost productivity more than ever to help forge its path as we head into an unknown future.

Given this, there is an opportunity – one that can enable to the UK to create the most forward-thinking, modern government in the world and show that we are smart, efficient and importantly, open for business.

It’s important to remember that the government still has a cost-saving agenda. It needs to deliver on transformation projects if it is to realise efficiencies at scale. Data is key to helping government reshape and redefine its services. The temptation with digital projects is that you end up re-implementing existing processes, rather than redesigning them. Ultimately, this fails to deliver the innovative transformation and increased productivity envisioned.

So in order to create a substantial shift in making digital government a reality, government bodies need to make data informed decisions that create demonstrably superior digital services that citizens or customers actually want to use and are willing to engage with.

Why data is the key to everything

It is important to remember that at its core, digital government must be aimed at both digitally savvy and technologically challenged customers and citizens with easy-to-use services. It must also reduce the costs and risks of developing and launching new services. Lastly, it must, without exception develop an efficient, streamlined IT estate that continues to meet the demands of customers and service providers as they change over time.

Digging a bit deeper and exploring why the failure of integrated and ingrained digital transformation prevails, it’s clear behind the shiny and impressive ‘digital’ front window, the manual processes remain the same. And the dream of joined-up services remains largely unfulfilled. This is mostly because, despite its ambitions, government fails to make the right data informed decisions.

For instance, many government departments have developed workarounds for digital transformation processes. Yet, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the cracks can no longer be papered over. Particularly as the amount of information available to and produced by a single government department or business unit is growing exponentially from multiple sources.

Goodbye paper, hello data

Traditional paper-based records are being transformed into electronic files. DVLA’s replacement of in-vehicle road tax discs with electronic records as part of its efforts to reduce paper-based transactions relating to vehicle records is a case in point. Efforts by the National Archives to digitise the statute book can be seen in the same light.

New technologies and new ways of processing information are adding to the amount of data being generated. For instance, our customer the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) proposed a root and branch reform of the legal system – from the way police gather digital evidence, to the instigation of virtual courtroom sessions for certain crimes. It will produce a level of data the MoJ has not had to deal with before.

Changing types of data

The vast majority of new data being generated is likely to be unstructured – in contrast to the traditional highly structured, machine-readable formats. This includes information derived from blog posts, social media feeds, audio and video - such as the petabytes of audio and video data gathered by body cameras worn by Metropolitan Police officers to be used as part of the evidence-gathering process.

Future growth

Data volumes are set to expand further as the Internet of Things (IoT) extends into more and more areas. By 2020, more than 50 billion smart devices will be connected to the IoT, continuously streaming data for real-time analysis. Currently, only 0.5% of the world’s data is analysed, suggesting that the IoT’s analytics capabilities alone will account for a huge increase in demand for storage and processing capacity.

Not only is there a lot more data available, but the way people access it is changing, placing new demands on the infrastructure. Mobile technologies have changed the expectations of service users who are able to access business and government services outside the traditional parameters of office hours and location.

The widespread use of mobile technologies has changed the format that services need to be delivered through an appropriately designed mobile front end. As the mobile experience decouples itself from the smartphone towards a collection of connected devices, this challenge is only set to become more complex. Not least because it also demands a streamlined back-office set up that can respond to both predictable and unpredictable peaks and troughs in demand.

Trends such as these will only grow as the government lays out its plan to exit the EU. In order to meet this demand, the government has to have service providers available 24/7 and a consistent level of throughput, security and reliability. On top of this, it must implement cutting edge technology that can make large swathes of data more intelligent and work for itself.

Data is the future, of that there is no question. While the majority of the government's resource is rightly on its EU exit strategy, it’s important that data processes are also looked at closely. It has been suggested that “information is the oil of the 21st Century, and analytics is the combustion engine”. If the UK is to drive towards the new, brighter future, data must be at the heart of its journey.

Aingaran Pillai is chief executive and founder o f Zaizi

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