Looking beyond COVID-19 - public sector digital priorities

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez January 17, 2022
The Society for Innovation, Technology and Modernization (SOCITM) provides its annual update on what’s front of mind for public sector digital leaders.


Image of the world’s surface connected with digital light
(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay )

SOCITM's annual briefing on digital trends argues that in 2022 the COVID-19 pandemic will no longer be the primary focus or the main driver of digital change in the public sector. Instead, a period of ‘recalibration' will ensue, where government organizations will build on the digital solutions that have been created during the pandemic and will be blended with face-to-face delivery. 

The focus for CIOs and CDOs in public services for 2022 will be: 

  • Reviewing IT and digital strategies, prioritizing technology strands such as digital identity, artificial intelligence, cloud, cyber, app consolidation and collaboration/integration

  • Understanding the broader context for digital change, and in particular building credibility, knowledge, and influence in areas such as as data ethics, wider cyber risk management and trust frameworks

  • Developing new collaborative networks, within and between public service organizations, and with citizens directly

It goes without saying that COVID-19 has been a huge driver of digital change in government over the past couple of years. Whilst there have been mistakes made (inevitable), there is an opportunity now for public service organizations to build on the ways of working that have been adopted over this turbulent period - which is at the core of SOCITM's report. 

The pandemic has proven that barriers that were thought to exist are mostly artificial - such as cross department collaboration and necessary data sharing - and that change can happen quickly if there is enough incentive, political will and money are put behind an agenda. 

SOCITM's report dives into specific technology areas - such as artificial intelligence, digital identity, and cyber - but the more interesting points relate to the ongoing change to ways of working, broader integration efforts and a renewed focus on digital inclusion. 

If the importance of these areas can be recognized by those in charge across the public sector, then digital change efforts stand a greater chance of success in the future compared to when the pandemic began. 

In her foreword to the report, SOCITM president Sam Smith said: 

Like many contemporary digital and technology predictions, our briefing is heavily influenced by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it goes further, identifying key trends that lie in the spaces between different technologies and how these will affect the public sector. We are predicting, for example, a much greater focus on interoperability, systems integration, and exploitation of opportunities arising from a growth in processing power, coupled with harnessing data volumes and new tools.

In 2022, digital leadership will be less about IT exploitation and management, and more about true transformational impact on citizens. This includes resolving issues that inhibit deeper collaboration between public service organisations around individual citizen needs, including those with no ‘digital footprint'.

Many public service organisations are already significantly ‘digital' in how they operate, with the citizen at the heart of digital design practices and this has inevitably accelerated during the last two years of the pandemic. But it is far from universal, and, if the truth be told, many organisations continue to design digital solutions from the ‘inside out', which can compromise efficiency, productivity, and the adoption of new innovative models of service delivery.

The public sector will face new pressures in 2022 and digital design will be key to their resolution. These challenges range from new austerity, post- COVID ‘catch up', new partnership models, inclusion, and diversity, growing digital risks and public demands for sustainable and ‘green' solutions.

At the heart of the recalibration in 2022 will be the convergence of technology trends - not just the potential of the trends themselves to transform service delivery. This convergence will be exploited by AI developments.

New risks

Whilst COVID-19 isn't ‘over' by a long shot, the CIOs that spoke to SOCITM for its research agree that the pandemic has created "unprecedented cultural change" and that the digital acceleration will not be unpicked. 

However, whilst broadly positive, the speed at which the change has occurred has also left new challenges for leaders to deal with. Namely: 

  • New levels of cyber risks that require a fundamental review and new protections beyond ‘perimeter' IT defences (as a result of the shift to distributed work)

  • Dependence on digital requires a rebalancing of business continuity and risk planning with digital transformation investments

  • There is pressure on IT teams to deal with legacy risk and constraints, whilst embracing new technologies and digital methods

  • Some staff have been left behind in terms of digital skills - extra support is needed from HR to help everyone feel confident to become digital employees

  • Digital exclusion has changed because of the pandemic - there is heightened dependence on connectivity and ease of access to digital systems for everyone, and so digital inclusion is something that should be embedded in everything public sector organizations do

SOCITM notes that digital trend analysis is "fraught with difficulties, and often, over optimism" - which is why this write up has steered clear of diving into the technology trends themselves, favouring a look at the working challenges that face digital leaders. Technology choices are one thing, but the real challenge for the public sector this year is collaboration and integration across services. 

As already noted, COVID-19 has proven in many areas that when there is a big enough incentive (such as a health crisis), departments are able to share data, work together and develop highly sophisticated systems quickly. You only have to look at the work that has taken place over the past two years at HMRC, where critical systems were developed at speed and at scale. 

SOCITM notes that in 2022 and beyond, particularly because of the pandemic, there will be new sharing and integration models emerging for a variety of reasons. These include: 

  • Financial drivers - many local public services are on the brink of financial collapse, and collaboration can drive savings and efficiency

  • Technology sharing - this has become easier in a digital model

  • Integrated care systems - these are proposed in all parts of the UK by the NHS Long Term Plan, requiring all aspects of care to be linked

  • Track and Trace learnings - these systems have shown to work best and most efficiently where councils and health bodies work in partnership 

  • Distributed work - this makes the next step of other virtual integrations across service boundaries easier

My take

The SOCITM report is worth reading in full, as it does a deep dive into the specific technology trends that will be front of mind for public sector digital leaders. However, the key message now is one of breaking out of artificial silos that have been embedded for years and figuring out ways of working enable cross-organization data and technology sharing - whilst managing the challenges of legacy. We've seen the art of the possible over the past couple of years and that momentum needs not to be lost. 

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