Breaking down the barriers

Billy D’Arcy says that the public sector continues to play catch up with the everyday technology that businesses and consumers have come to rely on from other providers. 

The UK government has clearly recognised the extent to which digital can improve public sector services and thus the lives of citizens on both a local and national scale.
From policies and devices that enable public sector staff to work more flexibly, to mobile apps and platforms that make it easier for people to navigate local services, we are already seeing the beginnings of a digital revolution. 
But there are challenges which must be addressed if the government is to fully embrace this, namely; constraint on resources, lack of citizen engagement and increased public expectations.
Using both digital technology to improve productivity within public sector organisations and enforcing digital public services by breaking down the barriers to access will improve citizen engagement and the service they receive. 
As a result, local and national government authorities will have a transformational impact on citizens’ lives.
Improving workforce productivity
A study by O2 and the Centre of Economic and Business Research (Cebr) found that the UK’s largest public sector organisations are missing out on crucial savings to the tune of £7.2 billion due to inefficiencies caused by poor connectivity and digital technology for staff who are on the move.
Inevitably, this has a direct impact on the way in which government at a local and national level can serve citizens.
Our study showed that front-line staff including healthcare workers, police and local councils are being hampered by a lack of connected devices and mobile business applications that would otherwise enable them to access vital information and complete tasks on the move, helping them to be more productive. 
Public sector leaders and decision makers must unlock this access in order to create more flexible working opportunities, improve productivity and thus, improve frontline services. 
Other improvements to productivity can be achieved through other digital innovations such as machine-to-machine (M2M) technology, which is opening up new capabilities for organisations to work in different ways. 
This allows them to become more efficient, sustainable and streamlined by using data to target and manage resources better, which in turn not only increases flexibility and thus productivity, but also provides a structure that is both easier to manage and cheaper to run.
Citizen disengagement
Digital technology opens up new channels for communication and engagement, allowing service providers to get closer to the people they serve and gain new insights to inform service development, as well as reduce citizen demand in the long-term. 
But this is hampered by the lack of citizen engagement. 
Separate research shows that just 28% of people have used their mobile device to get in touch with their local authority and further, just 8% of people have used their phone to interact with a public service. 
Compare this to the UK’s successes in areas such as digital retail – where mobile plays a part in the purchasing journey for more than 50% of people – and you can see that the public sector still has a long way to go.
We are, however, seeing increased interest from young people in digital government with 42% of 25-34 year olds saying that digital services allow them to be better informed about their local area.
However, we must not forget older people. 
One of the main benefits of digital government is providing those most in need or at risk with a direct line to services. 
Given that providing older people with the care they need is one of the main challenges facing our ageing society, it is concerning that there is a lack of engagement from this age group. 
Perhaps more worrying is the low proportion of older people who use their mobile even for basic internet functions – such as online banking or shopping. 
Digital technology has the potential to have a life-changing impact on the lives of older people so government must, therefore, make a concerted effort to address this challenge.
Transforming local public sector services
Despite the transformative potential of digital, the public sector continues to play catch up with the everyday technology that businesses and consumers have come to rely on to go about their daily lives. 
Pockets of best practice have emerged in the public sector – primarily with optimising online services which, for instance, allow people to change the date of their driving test while on the bus or pay their VAT on their tablet.
However, the digitisation of public services is taking too long and local authorities in particular are under increasing pressure to improve their digital infrastructure. 
If local authorities are to have a positive impact on the lives of citizens and the community, they must go one step further and deliver top-class digital services that meet ever changing citizen needs.
For example, going beyond site optimisation and accelerating the creation of public service apps, which make it much easier and quicker for citizens to access services on the move. 
Otherwise I fear that the overarching objective of making public services more efficient at a grass roots level will be missed and citizens will remain disengaged.
While cost implications will be a concern to local authorities, there are options available to them, which will also enable the implementation of such services efficiently. 
For instance, O2’s Local Government Digital Fund provides local authorities with practical support and funding to help unlock the potential of technology and address the long-term challenges they face. 
Government must continue to foster the right environment and set the right frameworks that allow innovation to flow not inhibit it.
There is no doubt that local and national authorities can improve the quality of public services and enable authorities to reduce costs, work more efficiently and be more effective by breaking down the barriers to digital access. 
Government must use new technology and better connectivity to improve the productivity of its workforce at both a national and local level and at the same time, build and implement more digital public services that meet citizen needs and encourage engagement. 
Billy D’Arcy is managing director, public sector, at supplier O2

Colin Marrs

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