Digital transformation ‘struggling to meet ambition’, as automation threatens public sector jobs

Study claims that 850,000 jobs could be lost to automation by 2030 and suggests that public servants’ patience is running thin over delays to digitisation.

Deloitte report finds that government staff are frustrated by lack of progress to digital – Photo credit: Pexels

Public sector leaders are becoming increasingly frustrated with the slow progress made towards a fully digital government, according to a report.

Deloitte’s latest annual The State of the State study, published today, assesses public services across UK and looks at the trends that will affect the future of government, including Brexit, automation and digital change.

Based on interviews with public sector leaders, the report said that digital transformation is struggling to meet the ambition and that the attitude of those working in the public sector is shifting.

It said that the tone of the interviews has changed “from ambition to frustration at the barriers to progress” and that most had said they wanted to see it accelerated.

For instance, the report said that one permanent secretary in a devolved administration felt that his department was “always a year away from an outcome”, while one council chief executives rated his authority’s progress to digital as “four out of ten”.

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The same dissatisfaction at progress is evident across the different areas of the public sector as well as across most of the UK, the report said.

In Scotland, the head of a national body reportedly said: “We’re at Digital 1.0, but Digital 3.0 or 4.0 is where we need to be.” Meanwhile, the report said that Northern Ireland appears to have seen the most focused progress, citing the fact its civil service exceeded its 2016 digital targets.

However, the report said that the leaders understood the barriers to transformation, with a lack of skills being the most significant barrier to change.

The report noted that this is not just in recruiting and retaining digital expertise, but in leading transformation.

One comment from a council chief executive highlights the problem, which societies like the IT professional body Socitm have recently been trying to address through an increased focus on leadership and engagement of senior staff in digital transformation programmes.

The chief executive told Deloitte that many of his peers “pass anything digital to the head of IT”, concluding that “there’s a lack of competency to lead in a digital environment” across the public sector.

Further barriers identified included risk aversion, fear of failure and recriminations about past mistakes, with one minister telling the researchers: “We’re scarred from big IT projects so there’s a timidity to push the envelope.”

Rethinking systems

Others said that poor planning had stymied progress, with a number of comments indicating that there is a growing recognition within the public sector that they will need to innovate to reform whole services and not just focus on channel shift.

One council leader told Deloitte: “We’ve wasted time digitising systems that weren’t fit for purpose in the first place. It’s rethinking these systems that will radically improve productivity.”

The interviews also noted that digital exclusion was still a “live issue”, which is borne out in a separate section of the report that asked 1,000 members of the public how they wanted to engage with government.

It found that 59% of people said they would use online as one of their top three preferred methods to find out information about a public service – however for many issues the government wants citizens to carry out online, they would opt for the phone.

This includes 82% of people who ranked the phone as one of their top three options for making an appointment and 54% of people who rated it highly for changing personal details. Just 18% and 32% of people, respectively, ranked online as one of the top three.

The report also suggested there is support for better data sharing within government, both within the bodies themselves to improve their own work and between bodies to improve outcomes for citizens.

It quoted one police and crime commissioner, who said: “How many times do we find when a child dies that every agency had a piece of the puzzle? IT is the way to make something happen.”

Deloitte makes one recommendation related to digital transformation, which is to “hack away at their organisation one step at a time – within a wider digital vision, and with relentless momentum – while avoiding the trap of simply digitising existing processes”.

The robots are coming

Elsewhere in the report, Deloitte assessed the potential of automation to transform the public sector, and claimed that 850,000 public sector jobs could be lost to automation by 2030.

Both central and local government bodies considering increasing the number of automated processes say the aim is to reduce the amount of repetitive and menial tasks, and argue that it will free up staff time to focus on more skilled jobs.

Mike Tulley, global head of public sector at Deloitte, said that wider research carried out by Deloitte “shows that while jobs are displaced by automation, new, higher-skilled and better paying jobs are created as a result”.

However, the report confirmed that automation will lead to a fall in public sector staff, with administrative and operative roles in local government expected to fall to 4,000 in 2030 – last year there were 87,000 and in 2001 there were 99,000.

And, according to the Deloitte research, this will be followed by roles that involve interacting with people, such as frontline care workers, and jobs that require independent through and critical analysis.

It estimated that the number of care workers and home carers is projected to fall to 151,000 in 2030, from 331,000 in 2015. Meanwhile, the number of health care practice managers is projected to fall from 10,000 in 2015 to 2,000 by 2030.

However, Tulley said: “For many roles, particularly those requiring a high degree of cognitive skill, automation is likely to complement roles rather than replace them. For example, senior figures in policing, fire and prisons could utilise technology such as data analytics to inform their decision-making, helping them better understand demand for their services and performance.”


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