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What has digital government learned in the past year?

By Aingaran Pillai - 18th December 2019

We’ve written about many topics over the last 12 months based on our expertise and conversations with our public sector clients. 

So, what are the key themes that we've seen emerge in digital government this year?

Legacy problems

At the tail end of last year, we found that although digital transformation was going ahead in many government organisations, only 6% said they completely moved away from legacy infrastructure.

Government departments have done well in changing front-end services but, as discussed in evidence to the Science and Technology Committee earlier in January, progress on delivering more joined-up services to citizens is proving problematic. 

Many organisations don’t know where or how to start overhauling their unwieldy and complicated legacy systems. Siloed systems are poorly understood, highly complex and deemed too expensive to tackle. But to be truly digital, the “too hard box” needs to be opened.

It's understandable why it’s seen as too complicated and expensive. Traditionally digital transformation projects in the public sector have been delivered by large, global suppliers. And public sector organisations are daunted by engaging with big, complex and costly consultancy firms. 

But innovative SMEs are breaking free from the formulaic way of delivering projects and tackling these problems in smarter ways, introducing and adopting new ideas quickly. It’s one of the reasons why government has placed great emphasis on making the market easier for SMEs to compete in, though more still needs doing to encourage the positive disruption SMEs foster.

Strategic vs Tactical

Tackling legacy systems doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Taking an agile, iterative approach is sensible.  A tactical approach may well be necessary to start with in order to get control of an organisation’s legacy beasts. 

But eventually, those systems have to be reimagined and replaced. A tactical solution is all well-and-good to fix short-term problems, but only if a strategic solution is being considered simultaneously for the longer term. 

To deliver end-to-end services that meet user needs, as per the requirements of the GDS’ government Service Standards, this holistic approach is needed. 

RPA OR DPA?

One of the key themes of the year has been automation, and it neatly summarises the short term tactical versus the long-term strategic view. 

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) seems to be riding a crest of a wave at the moment — everyone’s talking about it in the public sector. RPA effectively makes existing processes and tasks faster

But it's tactical and not transformative. It won’t solve the problems of an inefficient or flawed process. The correct alternative with legacy processes is to redesign or even scrap it — we believe with Digital Process Automation (DPA).

Many government departments are realising the limitations of this short term outlook. In our recent webinar, we heard from the DWP who made parts of the organisation digital with RPA but are now exploring DPA to make it transformative.

Capturing good data

Sorting out the end-to-end piece cannot be overstated. The shiny front face and a streamlined and digitised back-end are not only important for good user experience but also necessary to get the most out of emerging technologies.

To utilise things like automation, Machine Learning and AI to its fullest and be transformational, good quality data is needed.

AI in particular needs the contextual data that is obtained when end-to-end processes are digitised. If some processes are manual, data collection will be poor or incomplete and the AI will not get the whole picture. Poor quality and incomplete data will hinder the AI from making better decisions.

Security

As technology advances, so do security threats. Criminals and state-sponsored attackers can create embarrassment, cause financial loss and ultimately threaten the existence of businesses. 

But security doesn’t have to be impregnable. As a partner of choice for secure public sector organisations, we’ve seen our clients take a pragmatic view on security. 

‘Good enough’ isn’t a poor cousin. Good enough means you understand your risks, your data, the impact of cyber breaches and then implement security that is good enough to protect your organisation.

NCSC created a web platform that demonstrated this proportionate risk management. “We’re aiming to make the web platform as secure as necessary, rather than as secure as possible,” it said. Security is balanced with other important factors, such as usability, functionality and cost.

The correct implementation of such a proportionate security approach is more important than chasing after gold-plated security. It's no longer enough to bolt on a governance process that is both reactive and risks being disconnected. It needs to be embedded in the whole business, like we do with the projects we deliver with our award-winning DevSecOps methodology

DecSecOps is not a tool or a buzzword but a disruptive philosophy putting security at the centre of development and operations. More organisations are looking at developing and integrating teams to deal with this new way of thinking. The approach allows organisations to move quickly, be secure and put value in front of users. 

People

The talk of teams takes us nicely to another major theme that emerged this year; the importance of people in the digital transformation journey. A collaborative, agile way of working has been championed in the public sector for some time but some still struggle with the agile way of working.

As organisations work in more digitally-focused ways, different challenges emerge. Digital transformation represents a significant shift, not only in embedded processes and systems but also in the culture of an organisation. To better deal with these challenges, organisations need to cultivate a robust workforce prepared for change and support them to make the most out of emerging technologies. 

For example, the success of using a DevSecOps approach is directly related to how mature and comfortable an organisation is in dealing with change. Encouraging the democratisation of decision-making amongst staff facilitates creativity and breeds confidence — qualities needed to increase productivity and make efficiencies.  

Aside from staff having the right resources and tools to do their jobs, radical thinking like this is needed to drive change from the heart of an organisation. It’s why cultivating the correct culture is crucial to delivering digital transformation successfully. 

What next in 2020?

The rumoured shakeup of the machinery of government after EU Exit should now be used as an opportunity to reform how government serves citizens more effectively. Government should look to put in place a strategy to invest in technology and give civil servants the tools and training to really tackle the most important challenges facing society.

About the author: Aingaran Pillai
Aingaran Pillai is the Founder and CEO of Zaizi. Having worked on an Alfresco project in Government back in 2006, he liked the technology so much he started Zaizi to work on many more Alfresco implementations. Since then he has built Zaizi to be a leader in providing end-to-end digital solutions, specialising in business automation, open source technologies and cloud platforms. He provides thought leadership in the field of digital transformation in both the Public and Private Sector.