Damien Venkatasamy says technological challenges are not the only ones which government organisations need to overcome to transform services.

Digitising front-of-house and back-end services can save millions of pounds and make it easier for users to access the information and support they need. Central and local governments have adopted a digital strategy to redesign services with the aim of becoming digital by default. This is a fantastic idea but, unfortunately, getting it to work in practice is far from easy.  

I believe the barrier to digitising public services in the UK is a combination of three elements – culture, technology and skills. It is only once the problems in each of these elements are addressed can the UK successfully implement digital services across public sector and pass on these benefits to citizens.

Hurdle one: Achieving a cultural shift in public sector

The cultural legacy within government cannot be underestimated. The plan to digitise the public sector is a relatively recent one that, while endorsed publicly, is often difficult to implement due to the upheaval it would cause for the leadership and existing staff members.

Other sectors such as retail or telecommunications, for example, have adapted more quickly to focus on how the consumer wants to interact with the business; a change which is driven by the external pressures put on organisations by customers who will go elsewhere if they are not satisfied.

The public sector is the opposite. It is designed from the inside-out, often resulting in a lack of focus on the user experience. A cultural shift is necessary to ease the transition process but the realities of government can make change extremely difficult.

In comparison to the private sector, the public sector is exposed to a high level of scrutiny, which can lead to cautious behaviour and lessen the appetite for reform. Simplifying processes and automating basic functions is at the heart of digitisation.

Undoubtedly, this will result in the need for some departments to re-deploy and re-train some staff. This is of course always challenging and as a result some leaders are reluctant to fully commit to the necessary changes.

However, if government is to implement a workable digital strategy for the long-term, leadership needs to take charge and look beyond the immediate challenges as the overall benefits of digitisation far outweigh the struggles.

Hurdle two: Moving away from legacy IT infrastructure

Changing the culture of government is hard enough, but the existing technology infrastructure is often an equally difficult challenge. In many cases, the existing IT systems and processes can be over a decade old.

They tend to be cumbersome, repetitive and not user-friendly.  They were designed and implemented at a time when digital had not fully taken hold and as a result are fundamentally incompatible with the new digital economy. It is not as simple as just deploying a new website, the back-end systems need to be able to handle the data and processes in the right way or it will be impossible to deliver truly digital services.

For government to move to digital, legacy IT systems have to be replaced and data must be migrated to new systems. The scale of this is an obvious barrier.

The upfront cost of implementing a new system is daunting for many departments, especially when they already face budgetary issues to run their basic services.

However, digital should be seen as a long-term investment strategy that will deliver significant return on investment once fully implemented.

Hurdle three: Bringing in the right skills

As described earlier, digitising government is far from straightforward. Successfully achieving such a fundamental overhaul requires a team with the knowledge and experience to help foster the move.

Unfortunately the public sector, like many others, is currently experiencing a skills gap and lacks both the expertise and quantity of staff needed to manage the implementation of a digital system that meets citizen’s needs.

Even when digital projects are outsourced to specialists, it is still vital that internal staff have the skills and experience required to understand the mechanics of the project. Without this in-house expertise, it will always be extremely difficult for any organisation to implement change effectively.

Those that have successfully made the move to digital have often introduced dedicated teams with technology and commercial skills; making them capable of handling both the technology behind the transition and “selling” the benefits to stakeholders.

Government organisations could learn from this and take similar steps to manage the process. With responsibility for millions of citizens and under the glare of public scrutiny, it is important for them to invest in the right people, consequently reducing the probability of projects failing.

Overcoming these three hurdles will not be easy for government, but with the right support from leadership and an understanding that true digitisation requires cultural as well as technological change, the public sector can work together with private sector suppliers and deliver real benefits to citizens.        

Damien Venkatasamy is director of public sector at Tata Consultancy Services 

Read the most recent articles written by Damien Venkatasamy, Director of Public Sector, Tata Consultancy Services - Innovation and reform in central government

Share this page