Why the public sector needs to reprogramme its relationship with technology
Author: Stuart Arthur
- Service Technology and engineering
- Sector Central government
- Date 30 May 2022
A fundamental rethink in the way organisations approach technology can deliver the impact our front line services need now.
As we look beyond the pandemic, we’ve got an opportunity to rethink how we reorganise ourselves, our society and our institutions. The world has changed and we need to meet its new challenges in a different way.
How can we do that by rebooting our use of technology and putting people first?
We live in a digital age, but too often organisations and institutions still think and behave in an analogue way. As Madeleine Albright famously said: “People are talking to their governments on 21st century technology… Governments listen to them on 20th century technology and provide 19th century responses.”
Pouring more money into tech investments in the way we’ve always done won’t necessarily help. In fact, it might make issues worse.
So how can we recalibrate our approach to technology and people to deliver the changes our front line services need, for the good of future generations?
Digital doesn’t just mean the IT department
Digital isn’t about a siloed piece of tech or a set of tools. It’s at the cultural core of how modern organisations operate. And it’s increasingly the main way that people access and communicate with services.
But frustratingly, many institutions still see IT as a separate department within their organisation — more of an internal service provider than an integral part of all products and services.
Investment in digital over the last decade hasn’t fixed this inherent, structural problem. In fact, it often amplifies it. That’s because the siloed approach is still underpinning new, digital programmes which often function separately from the wider organisation and their customers. And this leads to tension between teams as well as inefficiencies in programmes of work.
In addition, external software services are still frequently bought by people who don’t fully understand the needs of the team they’re being bought for.
This way of working fosters an ongoing lack of creativity and innovation in terms of how organisations build, buy and use technology. It emphasises sticking rigidly to a plan — even if that plan is wrong. And it doesn’t allow for changing needs and situations.
So, what’s the answer?
Fuse technology into your organisation’s DNA
Firstly, adopt the startup mindset and approach.
Most startup companies don’t have separate IT departments. Who supplies the technology, who works with it and who delivers technology solutions are all blurred into one. Technology is baked into the DNA and culture of the organisation in a very human centric way.
To follow this approach, organisations need to move away from traditional executive boards made up of people who don’t have enough of a grasp on what technology can and can’t do.
Instead, they need Chief Digital Officers (CDOs), Chief Technology Officers (CTOs) and Chief Information Officers (CIOs) — experts who can create the required conditions to ensure that agility, user centricity, and modern technology thinking is factored into every piece of decision making, and is seen as critical to the success of the organisation’s long term, strategic goals.
Build, don’t just buy
Secondly, consider building digital solutions internally rather than buying them in to avoid unnecessary constraints and a lack of adaptivity.
This is a shift in approach for many organisations because historically, building tech solutions used to be extremely costly. But now, the changing technology landscape and the arrival of new digital tools and infrastructure means it’s easier than ever for an organisation to build, test and deliver their own digital solutions internally. In fact, it’s well documented that the least effort goes into coding and more so in defining and understanding the problem space and where the most value can be added.
Bespoke solutions often have an advantage over off the shelf systems as they are designed by and with the people who will ultimately have to use them. And unlike the many constraints found in off the shelf solutions — which need to cover an extremely broad set of use cases — they can be made to work in very targeted ways.
In the public sector, effective custom built solutions can lead to the fundamental rewiring of how services are delivered and accessed — with better outcomes for people and society. Good technology is user centred and adaptive to allow organisations to pivot when needed without the need for large scale replacements of underlying technologies.
It will also help to alleviate the tech stress that is a constant source of frustration for many public sector employees, who face a daily battle working with systems and software that aren’t fit for purpose.
Putting IT at the heart of who we are
Ultimately, the success of future digital transformation depends on being adaptive. At the heart of this is the way organisations select, manage and use technology to deliver more value for users, more quickly than ever before.
Today, technology should underpin and flow through every part of the organisation, what it offers and how it delivers that offering.
In the public sector, this integrated approach will unlock the full potential and reach of services that govern our lives. It will reshape the society that we live in now, and help us realise who we can be in the future.
Starting a new conversation
Find out more about using technology, design and data to make positive change in our new book Multiplied, How digital transformation can deliver more impact for the public sector. It’s available to buy now, with all profits donated to the Association of NHS Charities.
We’ll also be diving deeper into the themes of the book in two upcoming panel discussions.