Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic it has been highlighted time and time again how data has been used to deliver services and provide care to citizens, in ways that prior to the public health crisis would have been deemed to be impossible. Central government, local government and healthcare organizations have all proven that when there is a crisis, data can be used to accelerate services and identify the needs of citizens.
But as we enter the Vaccine Economy, those in charge of digital projects in the public sector are now considering how to capitalize on this momentum and appetite for change. Data use is central to the provision of modern government and healthcare services - but it's not something that is easy or can be taken for granted.
We saw, for example, how in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Health Service in the UK sought to plough ahead with its data collection services at a GP level in order to better understand the provision of healthcare services across the country. Poor communication, a perception that the project was being rushed through, privacy concerns and a lack of control given to citizens meant that the new project faced a backlash and was ultimately canned.
There are huge benefits to more sophisticated data use across government, but if handled incorrectly, can mean permanently damaged confidence. Trust is essential.
With this in mind, we spoke recently with Kam Patel, ServiceNow Senior Director of Public Sector UK, who has recently joined the vendor from Google, to find out his views on how government organizations can get data moving.
We are speaking to Patel ahead of ServiceNow’s Now at Work virtual event, which is running this week and can be registered for here.
Patel's vision for data use in the UK healthcare sector is one where citizens are placed at the center of their personal healthcare monitoring, and where data flows between private and public sector organizations seamlessly. However, the key is that users constantly have a view of their data and an understanding of where it is. He said:
What I predict is going to happen in healthcare is that we as citizens are going to be enabled to take a proactive healthcare position. You've got all of the wearable devices going through the roof, for one - but if you look at healthcare as a core, you've got the NHS providing an amazing service to us, but you've also got a few that are blessed with private healthcare. What's going to be happening is that you are almost going to have a dashboard of your own health, where we are proactively monitoring blood pressure, sugar levels, in a proactive way. This looks good, this doesn't look good, etc.
But it will also be working with the private sector. So you're going to go to your local pharmacist for a certain service, right? There are more and more ad hoc, proactive healthcare measures being outsourced to the private sector - but that data needs to flow back to your overall NHS picture. When did you have the vaccine? When did you have your last eye test? In that scenario, it's critical that it's in an automated and seamless way. You can't wait for a month for that data to go to your GP. It's got to be there, it's got to be instant, so the GP can do something proactive with that.
Equally, this translates into the social care setting, which is due for huge reforms under the current government. Patel has personal, recent experience of how manual processes and poor insight into data use can weigh on those caring for others. Patel said:
In social care, in the context of an aging population, it's even more acute. One of the motivators for me to come back into the public sector is that my dad passed away in February of this year with dementia, and we were the primary carer for him. The amount of paperwork that you have to go through to get the right care for that individual is crazy. You need paperwork, you need to make sure you capture the data, but then it was a black hole. Where is that data going? Which department is it going to? That's the piece which has to be more automated and seamless.
As noted above, if citizens feel like government bodies are not being cautious with their data, trust can be diminished and any potential gains or progress can be rapidly depleted. Whilst citizens are usually more forgiving about handing their data over to private companies, when it comes to the government, they appear to be far more cautious.
Patel argues that lessons need to be learned and government bodies need to slowly show how exchanging data can deliver better experiences for citizens. He added:
What do we do with data? I think there's a generational shift. I think the younger generation are more comfortable with sharing a lot more information. Then you've also got the camp that are more cynical about the government using data to track and do not great things. It's a difficult one.
I think it's going to be evolution, not a revolution. With data, if you're at the bottom of a rung, and you give visibility and tell people you're going to do all these funky and amazing things, you're going to freak out most people. You've got to take them on a journey. Step one is this. Step two we are going to do this.
At each step, if you can demonstrate the benefits that you're getting from providing or sharing that data, then it becomes more acceptable. If you say ‘hey, you need to tell us this and we don't know how it's going to benefit you yet', you're going to get pushback.
And talking of data fear, it's hard to ignore the negative sentiment often surrounding the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). Patel argues that the responsibility is on government institutions to: one, explain the benefits that these technologies can bring to careers; and two, then invest in upskilling people so that they're not left behind when AI and ML are inevitably deployed. He said:
The next evolution is that there has to be a stronger use of AI and ML. I know it's scary, but the whole AI piece is critical to accelerating decision making and processes. That in itself takes a whole chunk of cost out of the business.
People always worry that AI and ML will lead to job losses, and in the public sector that's even more amplified. But it's allowing people to get different skill sets. I studied history, and if you look at every industrial or tech revolution, it's always been a case of fear of unemployment, but what's happened every time is that the skills are redefined, reintroduced and the skill sets of individuals go up a level.
And that's the piece that the UK public sector really needs to get behind - upskilling the next generation of the workforce to really improve the productivity of the UK.