The past 18 months have been gruelling for those working in the public sector, as all sectors of government worked night and day to respond to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Central, local and arms-length bodies in the UK have by and large managed to implement new policies and systems in timeframes that would previously have been considered unachievable.
For example, you only have to look at the work carried out by the UK's tax department HMRC to deliver the furlough scheme, or how the Department for Work and Pensions managed a huge surge in demand for Universal Credit, to see that there have been successes in capability delivery.
There have of course been public failures too (for instance, the back and forth on the contact tracing app and the A-level algorithm fiasco), but what's become clear is that there are clear lessons that have been learned for what success looks like. In fact it's now very apparent that with clear political direction, barriers removed, a directive to collaborative cross-department, and with mechanisms in place to share data, government at all levels can achieve a huge amount with technology in a very short space of time.
Which is why we were keen to speak to Simon Collinson, Head of UK Public Sector at Salesforce, to get his take on how the pandemic has impacted thinking in government, when it comes to digital change and delivery.
Collinson has firm ideas about how the public sector should be thinking about engagement with citizens and businesses, which closely mirror some of the work we've seen being carried out by central and local government over the past year and a half.
Broadly speaking, whilst the pandemic has been a tough experience for most, COVID-19 could have a positive impact on how the public sector thinks about and works with technology. Collinsons says:
The impact of COVID-19 has hung like a spectre over the public sector and I think what we're seeing is, in many cases, is actually quite a positive impact. We're seeing a government emboldened by the experience of reacting effectively in the face of COVID-19 and being self confident to know that it can drive through agility and changes, using technology. And that's been really heartening.
Collinson also notes that the work that's been done by the Government Digital Service (GDS) over the years - a central organization in Whitehall that controls digital policy and setting standards - has paid off during this time. There has been growing criticism of GDS, with some believing it has gotten too bloated and perhaps lost its way - but Collinson argues that the foundations it has laid were fundamental in the British Government's COVID-19 response. He says:
If you look at the advent of GDS many years ago, and the changes that it brought in, I think some had felt that that process had run its course. But COVID-19 has been an opportunity for plenty of government to show actually what it could do with the capabilities it had developed. The systems supported the changed processes, supported the key functions, and we kept Britain running.
Collinson says that the question on everybody's lips now is, what's next for government? Will the current administration pursue "austerity 2.0" in an attempt to deal with the money borrowed and spent during the pandemic? What Salesforce is noticing, however, is that there's a general acceptance now that the broader public sector needs to focus on engagement as a central principle for success. He explains:
What we're seeing, certainly at a national, and a local level, is an understanding that there is a greater need to engage with businesses and the public in a different way. So, much more digital engagement, much less paper based.
There has been a change in expectations from the British public that they will do a lot more digitally. And Brexit has driven a lot of businesses to know that they need to engage with government, it's the replacement of processes and the setting of new processes is going to be different.
So we're seeing an emerging focus on government-to-citizen engagement, government-to-business engagement, and what proportion of that we can do digitally?
Collinson says that the general consensus on achieving this digital engagement is that public organizations are not focusing on their monolithic backend systems, but are rather seeking to lift the intelligence held within those systems up into an effective engagement layer. He adds:
This digital engagement is where the real growth is and that's where people are putting a lot of their effort into. Customers are saying ‘we're not going to change monolithic backend systems, we can't change those processes, but what we can do is put a customer, citizen or business engagement layer across them'. And how do we do that in the easiest way that's GDS compliant and accessibility compliant?
If you take a look at the world of banking, for example, where I spent 15 years of my career - they haven't replaced those monolithic backend systems. But what they have done is taken increasing volumes of the processing and the business process up into the engagement layer. It's the same for retail. All of the decision isn't on audiences, on best next offer, that's taken away.
You're always going to need systems of record, but where the intelligence lies, that goes into the engagement layer. The idea that you can simply put a neat skin over the top, and that will solve all your problems, that's a fool's errand. But what we see is that the more intelligence and processes you can build into that engagement layer, if that's where the focus goes, you can gradually lift away from that system of record.
The public sector organizations that are having the most success in this area, according to Collinson and his experience with customers, are those that have retained (and built up) in-house capability and expertise, rather than outsourcing their outcomes to SIs. He believes that the key to this is also adopting modern, open architectures. He explains:
Agility seems to be the watchword here. Those organisations which have had open data models, which have built on platforms that have enabled rapid change fared well. They really did. And I think, you know those organizations which haven't worked on open data, open platforms, open systems, have not fared well.
A lot of this goes down to architecture, governance and procurement. I think what it has exposed is those organizations that have outsourced everything, or simply tried to procure a set of outcomes from suppliers, have found that they haven't been able to spin the contracts around in time or haven't been able to get the commitments from the suppliers in time. And that's really hindered them.
Data sharing and personalized experiences
Looking further into the future, Collinson has a vision that closely aligns with the new strategy that was released by GDS, recently. GDS outlined its purpose beyond 2021, where it said that one of its key missions is to create "joined-up services that solve whole problems and span multiple departments".
The thinking here is that too much responsibility is placed on citizens to understand how government works in order to get the services they need. Instead, citizens should be able to approach government at one source, make requests, and the mechanics of Whitehall carry out the processes behind the scenes, without the need to navigate various departments and systems.
This of course will require a fundamental change in how government currently works, with a strong focus on data sharing and breaking down departmental silos. But as we have seen during COVID-19, it is possible. Collinson says:
What we'd like to see coming out of that GDS agenda is a continuation of a lot of the good work they've done, I think it's definitely evolution not revolution.
The lesson I'd love government to learn is, people are prepared to share more data with government and be open, but you've got to harvest that data once, retain it, and then use it effectively to create a personalized experience. And then out of that, you get loyalty, you get trust, you get engagement, you get policy outcomes that you want.
Some of the experiments I see globally around innovation are around: less going to a single government department for an engagement, and more about almost ‘life events'. You know, giving birth to a child will kick off nine or 10 separate multi-agency processes, but you go to one place. And that's what government will do - you give your details once, and actually it's all looked after. People will engage that way.