Public Services > Central Government

The future of public sector IT: it's all about eating your greens

Published 17 May 2016

Gary Barnett, head of enterprise advisory at Kable argues that public sector IT will only develop the level of fitness it needs to support transformation or deliver a digital agenda if it has also bulked up its core capabilities

Last week saw the Public Sector 2030 conference hosted by techUK. A raft of leaders in Public Sector IT set out how the public sector might look in 2030 and described the pivotal role that technology will play in helping to create that future.

The idea that technology will play a central role in transforming public services wasn't especially revelatory, but there was a strong sense that there is a commitment from the centre to support and promote new ways of adopting and exploiting technology in order to help the public sector deliver better value, both in terms of the cost of services delivered, and in helping to improve the quality of those services.

The most consistent message, however, was that a) the future will be very different and b) it is pretty hard to predict precisely how it will be different. We know that the public sector faces enormous financial challenges, whatever the flavour of future governments the (albeit largely mythical) era of gold plated taps is over. We also know that citizens have a higher expectation of service from the public sector than ever before.

To a large extent, this is what delegates came to hear; people leading IT in the public sector need to be reassured that the future is exciting and crammed with digital transformation. Given this mandate, the conference was a great success; but while it's important to have a sense of destination, our concern is less about how things will look in 2030 and more about what our public sector clients need to do today in order to get there. Of course the digitisation of government is the goal, this isn't controversial. The challenge lies in how we change what we have today in order to reach that goal.

The future of public sector IT depends on two things: inspiration and perspiration. While the inspiration component makes a compelling topic for conferences, as American inventor Thomas Edison made clear over a century ago, success will depend on 99 parts of perspiration for one part of inspiration.

The perspiration component of this recipe isn't exciting or trendy and a keynote speech whose central message is "this stuff is really gnarly, and we're all going to have to work really hard!" isn't that likely to raise spirits and get conference delegates fired up. But it is the truth; our ability to get on with the difficult, unglamorous and often boring stuff will determine our ability to arrive 2030 fit and ready to deliver.

It is easy for thought leaders to assert that we "have to do something about our technology legacy"; that hardly counts as a light bulb moment, particularly as for many public sector organisations legacy technology lies at the heart of their ability to deliver services on one hand, while acting as a major inhibitor to transformation on the other. Of course, in the short term it's possible to present a glossy impression of transformation by creating a natty new user interface to existing processes, and in the context of citizen engagement this is enormously valuable and worthwhile. But a new website does not actually equate to "digital transformation".

It's generally accepted that necessity is the mother of invention and we have seen how the financial constraints that public sector organisations face can act as a powerful motivator for change, but the public sector can't get fit by dieting alone. The secret to fitness is diet combined with exercise. What we, as leaders, need to do is set out a fitness program for public sector IT in which we lay out a core set of exercises that will help lay the foundation for the transformation we're being called upon to deliver, combined with a healthy diet that mandates that we eat our greens before we get to have dessert.

If public sector IT is to develop the level of fitness that it needs in order to support transformation or deliver a digital agenda, it has to being by working on a set of core capabilities. These are architecture (both enterprise and system architecture), data management and governance, agile procurement (especially in the context of procuring "as-a-service" offerings), agile development and devops, and collaboration.

There are already pockets of best practice within the UK public sector in all of these areas. Our challenge is to identify best practice wherever it's practiced and then to help other organisations with the challenge of benchmarking themselves against it, and then helping them to embrace it.

These core skills represent the fundamental level of fitness that public sector IT has to build if it's to take on the challenges that it will have to confront on the way to a brighter, more agile, more cost effective, and digitally transformed 2030.

The research agenda for our end user advisory program has been designed to help our clients build their fitness in each of these areas and over the coming year we will be running a series of micro-summits and breakfast seminars, looking at these topics, if you'd like to participate please let us know.

Gary Barnett is head of enterprise advisory at Kable


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