If there was one word that came up in pretty much every session at the London leg of Fujitsu World Tour last week, it was ‘change’.
We’re living in a period of rapid evolution, and Sarah Wilkinson, who until recently held the role of CIO at the Home Office, was keen to emphasise the importance of keeping up with the pace of change.
Between new customer demands and expectations in terms of how workplace technology should work (increasingly informed by people’s personal experiences as consumers), and general uncertainty about the effects of Brexit, we’re living in tricky times when it comes to technology delivery in the public sector.
This, Sarah said, is so much a given that we should be focusing on what changes need to be made to set us up for new challenges the future will inevitably bring.
And these changes need to focus on being competitive. It’s no longer enough to provide simply the cheapest option: it needs to be the best too.
This means adopting a more open, experimental attitude that reduces risk aversion and embraces the innovative.
Keeping up with the pace of innovation
But how, Sarah asked, can we throw off the shackles of a national stereotype that Pink Floyd once summed up as “hanging on with quiet desperation”?
That lyric, fittingly, was lifted from a song called ‘Time’, and time is something that will increasingly be of the essence. Public servants, Sarah said, must do away with limitless patience and work instead to find out what is slowing the system down.
Where can there be greater rigour around processes such as deploying code, procurement, or hiring people? Are there areas where government agencies and departments can better work together? And how should we be using technology to facilitate this?
Sarah argued that public organisations are still in the early stages of their evolution to digital, and that they’ll struggle to keep up with the pace of change without leveraging the breadth of the wider outside market.
Technology decision makers in the public sector need to consider how to adapt their organisations’ relationships with external market players to make the most of the private sector’s fast-moving technology landscape.
It’s not just about keeping pace, though – there’s scope to change how we think about programme delivery altogether, Sarah went on.
Greater flexibility means it’s no longer necessary to be hamstrung by one-size-fits-all approaches. Or, to put it another way, there are more opportunities to develop bespoke solutions than ever before.
But this can’t happen without a shift away from outsourcing and towards partnership and co-creation.
The government needs to be thoughtful and ambitious in the way it leverages the external marketplace, forming genuine partnerships with providers both large and small to deliver custom-fit solutions that meet the expectations of those who ultimately will be using them.
Embracing a culture shift
This of course doesn’t come without its own challenges. Cyber-attacks, Sarah pointed out, are an everyday occurrence, and large-scale attacks are only likely to become more frequent.
Legacy environments are not set up to defend against such attacks, and old approaches such as quarterly patching are dangerously slow.
But as ever, in challenges there too are opportunities. It’s perhaps flippant to call it an excuse, but the threat of cyber-attacks is as good a reason as any to overhaul legacy infrastructures and move towards more flexible, transformative setups.
Public bodies, Sarah said, need to be wildly ambitious in what they want from their technology, making full use of the transformational potential of data analytics and AI to set up systems that will constantly adapt and evolve based on real-time data.
The biggest challenge in this will be encouraging a culture shift. Government, said Sarah, is one of the few places in which digital disruption is seen as a bad thing.
This must change: there needs to be an appetite for disruption, and the new set of opportunities it offers to do things faster, cheaper and entirely differently.
Ultimately, as she prepares to move into a new role at NHS Digital later this summer, Sarah is feeling positive.
These are exciting times, she said, but tense times too – the risk attached to getting the next steps wrong (or, worse still, not taking any steps at all) is extreme.
The government, she said, must be deliberately and determinedly disruptive as it strides into this fast-paced future.
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