By Jos Creese, digital advisor
Every year, I write some IT-focused predictions for the coming 12 months in the context of the public sector, especially local authorities. This is particularly about the impact of technological change, on public services looking ahead.
Lots of people make predictions at this time of year, but they are often from enthusiastic geeks or agencies and suppliers with vested interests in their products. The best technology predictions should be based on common-sense and reality. So, here are some thoughts for 2018…
I see a growing trend for recruitment of specialists in this area and the need for more apprenticeships across the public-sector. This is a role that could easily be shared across public service organisation at a local level, and it is as much about public trust and protection as it is about public service resilience.
Nearly a decade after cloud solutions first appeared, some councils are still hesitant in their deployment. But the benefits in terms of efficiency, productivity, modernisation, agility and unlocking legacy IT are so great, all councils should review their approach in 2018. It is a chance to rationalise software portfolios and to put in place policies that embrace cloud offerings, yet acknowledge concerns about security, sustainability and practicality.
BROADBAND, MOBILE AND EQUALITY OF ACCESS
Many parts of the UK, urban and rural, still do not have good mobile or broadband coverage, with social and economic downsides as a result. Easy solutions require government regulation, for example to mandate mobile providers to work together, and investment in ‘not spots’ and perhaps less in 5G coverage. Poor mobile coverage stunts economic growth and opportunity, and leads to inequality. Councils should prioritise this area, working with industry, communities and national government.
DEALING WITH IT SKILLS SHORTAGES
Shortfalls in areas such as business analysis, change leadership and cyber resilience need to be prioritised, reducing the dependence on external consultants (like me!). Furthermore, despite a decade of trying to encourage more young people and women to join the IT profession, the fact remains that there is more to do – the proportion of women employed in IT has not budged much from 15%-17%. This is a lost opportunity for councils and the professional as a whole and must be a focus.
DIGITAL IMPLIES NON-SILO PUBLIC SERVICES
Digital delivery implies sharing platforms, processes, common functions and integrating teams. This is alien to parts of the public sector that have built a whole infrastructure around competition and control. New models of shared services are emerging that exploit the potential of digital, sharing information, systems and digital services where it is appropriate, typically on a geographical basis. This includes automation of whole supply chains, removing the need for any sort of professional intervention between user and provider. Councils need to consider the new digital opportunity for sharing, not just to save money, but to increase capacity, resilience, innovation and ultimately better outcomes for citizens.
AUTOMATION, ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE AND ROBOTICS
This has become a fashionable trend during 2017. In practice, deep adoption of AI and robotics will be a slow burn, despite the early adopters of avatars, autonomous vehicles and voice recognition systems such as Alexa. But we are seeing an inevitable demise of any last remaining manual activities that are better outsourced or automated, as well as the increasing encroachment of machine learning to supplement and, over time, to replace professional activities and judgements. Councils need to plan for this now.
ADVANCED ANALYTICS AND DATA
All public services, and local authorities especially, are becoming increasingly data-driven as the focus on service delivery is changes, becoming automated, outsourced or eliminated together. The key is ‘data intelligence’ to ensure services are provisioned efficiently and effectively, in timely fashion and in ways that anticipate needs and preferences. There is a huge opportunity to exploit the growing volume of data to better target resources and activities in the interests of both citizen needs and demands.
The idea that ‘smart’ should be focused entirely on ‘cities’ has been proved to be in part a supplier-lead myth. Of course, large urban areas are attractive for investment in technology, since the returns are greater and the risks lower. But the problems of congestion in our cities (for example), along with the starvation of some rural and smaller communities which become unsustainable, could be addressed with a broader perspective on the potential of technology to transform whole areas. Councils should read and act upon the Socitm research on this topic
VIRTUAL REALITY AND 4G TV
These will grow in importance during this year, as more streamed content becomes available at 4G quality. However, this will mostly be for the leisure market, and the extent to which they can be exploited by local government is questionable. Over time, the value of video-based data as a business tool will increase, and high-quality streaming will be important in the public sector in areas such as training, healthcare and community support. VR has potential in many areas, such as the design and development of care services as well as supported living and telemedicine.. Of course, it all depends on broadband and mobile coverage!
BITCOIN AND CRYPTOCURRENCIES
This is becoming increasingly tempting as a potential investment for the future, with eye-watering recent returns. But, in my view, councils should be very wary of investing at this stage. Public money should be invested in relatively low risk and appropriately philanthropic sectors, and finance directors need to consider the portfolios of investment they oversee for new risks in the light of these enticing new offerings.
We’ve heard a lot in 2017 about councils becoming more commercial. This trend will continue, but care is needed and becoming truly commercial may not be a long-term sustainable role for the public sector. Being more commercial is not the same as becoming more ‘business-like’ and is typically driven by market failure (broadband, outsourcing, or specialist software tools) or a desire to be independent of government grants (and cuts). The latter implies business awareness, efficiency, productivity and focus on outcomes rather than inputs. Digital maturity is be central to this, underpinning risk management, resource control, pricing strategies and commercial agility.
Who knows what lies ahead in 2018, but as a good CIO friend of mine recently said: ‘I’m happy for artificial intelligence and automation to take the cap off my bottle of beer, but not to drink it for me.’
Have a great 2018!
We will be releasing a far more in depth and comprehensive look at Jos’s predictions and insights for 2018 in an Inform Briefing later this month.