The future for local government IT: open, empathetic and collaborative
Microsoft looks at how councils are creating effective digital services.
Cabinet Office minister Matthew Hancock has laid out a clear agenda for government IT. He wants the government to do less, but to do it smarter. To achieve that, he wants the government to be more curious, more empathetic and more open.
Speaking at an event on digital transformation, Hancock outlined the government’s intention to rip up legacy IT systems, and talked about the need to rethink the way we design and build digital public services, and treat security as a core responsibility.
“Some of our legacy systems were designed before the invention of the web,” said Hancock. “Security had to be bolted on top, rather than designed in from the outset.” Now, he said, the government intends to phase out the large, inflexible contracts.
This agenda is based on using cloud services. There are many different ways for public sector bodies to move to the cloud but what’s important, according to Liam Maxwell, the government’s chief technology officer, is that digital reforms like the G-Cloud procurement initiative have freed up government IT leaders to concentrate on critical issues.
Not before time, some might say. While some scepticism is understandable, the UK has in fact been one of the first governments to move towards a public cloud. Laurent Lachal, a senior analyst at Ovum, points out that the government wants to create more responsive public services and wants to make better use of open, public data.
For example, £105m was saved by centralising hosting services through Crown Hosting, a joint venture between the government and SME Ark Data Centres.
What does this really mean? Certainly it is about improving some digital services but there is a huge efficiency driver here, too. To date, much of the progress has been seen in local authorities, but there has also been significant progress centrally in trying to speed up payment and application processes, something that cloud computing technologies have enabled (as has the Verify technology).
Hancock regularly cites examples of online services created by councils, such as Westminster council saving £6m by moving to cashless parking.
Cloud-based services offer the carrot of saving public money – something that fits the government’s austerity agenda. The Local Government Association, which has its own list of local examples, says cloud technology, in particular, has been essential in improving local services. Driven by falling budgets, cloud-based services have emerged as both necessary and useful.
“From investing in telecare to allow people to live independently in their homes for longer, to using online services to tackle loneliness by putting neighbours in touch with each other, councils have championed the use of new technology as it emerges,” says councillor David Simmonds, who chairs the LGA’s improvement and innovation board.
Those are good examples of how the government is thinking in terms of increased self-management, with services tailored for individuals. There are still concerns: public data, for instance, is one area where the government does not have a great track record.
There is also a need for new skills within the public sector to ensure it can maximise the use of cloud-based technologies. It’s something that could well be a challenge, according to Paul Connolly, director of the Management Consultancy Association. “In the current context of scarce skills and shrinking budgets, the public sector will struggle to secure the skills it needs,” he says. This is, of course, not just an issue for government. A recent Microsoft survey found that almost half of chief information officers believe their organisations lack the right skills and capabilities for the future. Connolly points out that the government’s Digital Catapult is providing digital centres of excellence for private sector entrepreneurs to tap into. “Similar support may well be needed for the public sector,” he said.
Public bodies are too often organised in silos, with monolithic IT architecture models that can make it difficult to re-use services. As the European Commission acknowledges in its digital agenda for Europe, public services need to become more efficient and effective, based on collaboration, transparency and participation. Cloud services may still have challenges for public organisations, but hold out the promise of reducing costs, improving services and helping businesses. Not a bad set of aims.
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