Digital back office is the key to transforming public services

Profile picture for user Derren Nisbet By Derren Nisbet March 2, 2016
Digital government isn't just slapping a digital face on creaking systems. Unit4's Derren Nisbet argues for transforming public services in the back office

Young man carrying big laptop on back against cityscape © Sergey Nivens -
The public sector continues to face considerable challenges. While many countries – including the US – look to the UK as an example of progressive public service delivery, there is still a long way to go before we see true digital transformation of public services.

At the end of last year, the British Chancellor underlined a range of UK government departments that have to find double-digit savings. The NHS has to deliver £22 billion ($31bn) efficiency savings in England while the Department of Health must cut 25% from its central Whitehall budget. Local government will see falls in its budget of nearly 30% between 2015/16 to 2019/20. Unit4 carried out a survey last year among 1,086 public sector employees, and when asked about the greatest threats to their organisations over the next 12 months, 98% said reduced funding.

Faced with this picture since the financial crisis first struck, the British government has worked hard to introduce transformational change that can drastically reduce the costs of running bloated government departments – transforming public services while saving money at the same time. According to Digital Economy Minister Ed Vaizey, the UK is a ”Tech Nation” and one of the key ingredients for success is “Transforming Government”. He believes government services should be as good as the best consumer services.

That message was reinforced by comments from Cabinet Office Minister Matthew Hancock, as reported in Wired last year:

Since taking over from Francis Maude MP in May 2015, Hancock  has defined his role as trying to ’build a new state’ that can be accessed almost entirely through a smartphone. Not the all-encompassing state of the 20th century, but a state you can hold in the palm of your hand.

Hancock last month announced a new Government Digital Service (GDS) Advisory Board, with a remit to support, advise and challenge on how emerging digital and technology trends can be applied to Government.

What about the back office?

If a citizen is to have a convenient and easy experience with public services online then that’s fantastic. But the reality is that many bodies can only handle requests manually at the back-office.  This to my mind is not digital transformation and not representative of Vaizey’s “Tech Nation” dream, nor Hancock’s “Smartphone Nation”.

While I see the obvious value of being very citizen-focussed, the ultimate goal must be digital plans that go beyond transformational change on the front line. Digital in the back office can bring about considerable efficiencies.

At Unit4, we often talk about the next generation of back office software as self-driving, because it can intelligently automate previously time-consuming manual tasks. Self-driving ERP will combine an analysis of historical data with predictive analytics to serve up the required information to staff and citizens without the frustration and cost of elongated administration. Directly aligned to the digital government agenda, it can work across functions, even departments, to find and serve up the right information.

Take the example of a frontline employee who needs to compile monthly expenses. Based on historical information, self-driving ERP can pre-populate their business costs, and the employee would only add or remove items where necessary – Hey presto! The bulk of the administration is completed and they can focus on their core role.

But in their personal lives employees of the public sector (who are part of the smartphone generation and nation) face a digital downgrade when they walk into the office. Hancock talks about not trying to “make friends” when citizens try to obtain a driving license – as he says, there is no need for a phone call, it should be easy for individuals to manage online. This same principle should be applied for public sector employees managing internal processes. How can they deliver digital excellence to their customers without their own excellent back-office systems, enabled by digital?

People driven services

When you think of government you think of people driven services – the much-used phrase about employees being the most important asset is fitting. The sector has an ageing workforce and management entrenched in the 40 to 60 age group. Research from and Dods reveals that more than half (56%) of 1,619 respondents believe public sector reforms will not be carried out effectively due to a skills shortage. The government and other public bodies need to think about succession planning and attracting younger workers.

However imagine the shock of a younger employee, a ‘digital native’, when faced with having to move from the fast pace of Netflix, Uber, Facebook, Spotify, even online banking, to the inner workings of the public sector environment. To individuals that may have never seen a CD, loaded software onto a PC or even used a landline telephone, it would be archaic.

In most cases, when public sector organisations do manage to recruit millenials, rather than capitalising on their tech savvy, they have to drag them into the past and expect them to learn how to manage silos, populate spreadsheets and forget using their mobiles. Of course it’s alien and a step backwards.

In Unit4’s survey, 80% of senior executives at board level or above believed technology will help save money. That is encouraging, as is Vaizey and Hancock’s vocal call for the use of digital technology. What everyone must realise however is that the public sector can only move as fast as its weakest link. So don’t just focus on the frontline, also consider the back office to remove mundane administration and focus dwindling resources on frontline tasks.

What is clear to me is that if we don’t act now, the sector will be paying the price in ten years’ time. The public sector must embrace digital now. It must use cloud to enable the free flow of information, analytics to provide insight into valuable data captured by mobile and other devices, and social collaboration to unite workforces towards providing vastly improved public services at a lower cost.