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Spending Review: momentous investment lacking digital direction

By: James Norman, UK Public Sector CIO, EMC
Published: Thursday, January 7, 2016 - 09:00 GMT Jump to Comments

While the Autumn Statement promised digital transformation, a lack of focus going forward could prove problematic.

In the Spending Review, George Osborne set out plans for over £4,000 billion of public spending over the next five years to ensure that the UK continues to grow as a nation, and lead as a stronger country.

A range of areas including tax credits, police budgets, the NHS, transport, housing, and childcare will all receive more money. Data and statistical measures show that the economy is expected to grow by 2.5% a year for the rest of the decade. This is a fantastic step forward, and one that clearly shows that the government is beginning to listen to industry more.

Despite all of this investment there seemed to be no focus on our digital foundation, or on facilitating collaboration. Previously, Matt Hancock highlighted the need for open data and transparency, as well as a smarter approach to drive efficiencies within government.

Did Matt Hancock’s promise of modernising data infrastructure, by tackling the sharing and linking of data come through? The answer is yes - to an extent. The Chancellor promised to eradicate paper processes by creating the most digitally advanced tax system and by investing £1.8 billion for digital transformation - £450 million of which is for Government Digital Services (GDS). The aim of GDS is to provide common technology services and platforms across the public sector.

What was not clear from the Autumn Statement, however, is whether the government is looking to support GDS in its own right, or if it is trying to bring GDS closer towards working with other departments. This will be an interesting area of focus in the coming weeks.

Currently, there is still no clear plan or incentives to accelerate the digital transformation within departments. GDS will have to continue working further afield in the public sector, and with those in the technology industry, to make sure the public want to engage with digital services.

This opportunity to drive closer collaboration between public sector organisations is vital for improving efficiencies regarding how we work and deliver integrated services. To achieve this there has to be closer coordination on the investment in the right collaborative technology, and continued commitment to a Government as a Platform (GaaP) strategy.

In addition to the significant investment in GDS, the health sector will also get further funding to put towards digital transformation plans. The NHS will receive £6 billion to fully fund its five year plan, with a further £1 billion investment to support new technology. These will include, for example, integrated care records and innovative treatments. This will also support the integration of health and social care systems as local authorities will be able to raise taxes to fund adult social care.

This extra funding needs to be prioritised towards developing intelligence capability, rather than token handouts, to deliver real change in the way that services are delivered across health economies. Data helps to make healthcare organisations more informed, responsive, adaptable and efficient.

When intelligence is built into the infrastructure, the right information is always readily available upon request and helps organisations make better decisions. This reduces cost and risk. There are already some fascinating projects underway, from organisations like Genomics England, who work with both the health sector and technology companies using data-intensive platforms to capture and sequence 100,000 DNA codes of patients. This leads to more accurate and earlier diagnosis, and personalised care.

Despite this boost in funding for health, it was not the amount that was expected. This could be down to the fact that departments still have to cut £12 billion of their costs whilst continuing to transform. I am curious to see which areas will be a priority as they progress the Five Year Forward View.

What is important to note, however, is that we do not just need a well-funded GDS and NHS. What we do need is a digital foundation that is built on data and transparency, as well as a smarter approach to drive efficiencies within government. This needs to happen whilst services for citizens are also improved.

The importance of taking a user-centric approach to designing digital services, that is inclusive for a broader proportion of the population, is clear. The government will need to start identifying wide-ranging citizen and civil servant needs from digital government services. It will then have to cultivate a culture of user-centric service design throughout the different departments and regional authorities tasked with actually delivering specific services.

In EMC's recent ‘Future of Government Digital Services’ report, it revealed that there is a significant demand for faster and better online services in key areas like health, taxation, and business support. With over half of 18-34 year old business decision makers wanting more online services regarding business support, the government’s digital foundation needs to be clearly mapped out.

Businesses currently lose, on average, 33 working days a year as a result of inadequate online resources. The necessary digital infrastructure needs to be strong enough to meet the needs of today’s demanding ‘Information Generation.’ The government needs to take this into consideration and accelerate its efforts to keep up with the expectations of citizen and businesses.

The government’s biggest challenge will arguably be to increase public trust around the use of technology and sharing data. This will be absolutely critical in supporting the next phase of digital government. The ability to engage and collaborate as closely as possible, with all those who can deliver change, will be vital for the government's digital transformation.

Positive steps towards embracing technology are being made by the government in a bid to improve public services and keep up with developments in the private sector, but a strong focus is needed at a central and local level to help guide this shift. Technology is not a costly and disruptive influence; it is a fundamental tool to help better engage businesses and citizens.

It will take some time for the government to realise their vision of a digital future. There is now a need for a clear direction to speed up this process and encourage wider digital adoption.

This article was first published on PublicServiceDigital.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.

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