While all public sector organisations are facing substantial challenges, there are two which arguably have been most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic: health and central government. 

Health services were already stretched to breaking point across the UK well before the onset of coronavirus; now they are on life support, struggling to cope with long waiting lists for treatment, gaps in care due to thousands of unfilled vacancies and the additional cost of pandemic restrictions. 

Central government, meanwhile, needs to find a way to recoup its outlay on COVID schemes, including furlough, mass testing and vaccines, in the face of mammoth rises in energy costs and inflation.

In addition to dealing with these challenges, the public sector is going through a major overhaul in a bid to modernise operations and embrace a digital-first approach. But this is no easy feat, as highlighted by a State of the Digital Nation survey, conducted by Vanson Bourne across 200 public-sector decision-makers in the UK.

Change management

One problem comes right at the outset of any attempt to transform a public sector organisation – the attitude or lack of ability to change. At a central government level, this is down to a leadership team that resists change – 60% of respondents cited this as the biggest factor in adapting to changes to services and targets. 

On the healthcare side, 50% of respondents were more concerned that their organisation does not plan well for changes and so does not know how to react.

Different branches of the public sector are facing different pressures, indicating the danger of trying to find one best practice for public sector transformation. Across central government, more red tape and regulation in order to justify spending was cited most often, by 65% of respondents. In healthcare, 70% of respondents were under pressure to make operations and processes slicker and smarter for patients and users.

Even success is measured in different ways. 60% of healthcare respondents say they are judged on the basis of speed of treatment, response and waiting times, and the speed at which cases move through the service. For those working in central government, speed of service is seen as the priority according to 50% of respondents; however, an equal number cite delivering services without raising taxes as the core measure of success. 

Digital transformation delays

Technology has a key role to play in helping the public sector deal with these pressures, from data management systems that will offer a smarter and slicker user experience, to artificial intelligence that can diagnose disease. But in light of the attitudes to change highlighted above, it is no surprise that digital transformation strategies are stalling. 

Half of central government respondents and 60% in healthcare say their digital transformation strategy is only partially rolled out across some areas of the organisation. 

Almost a third of respondents from each sector expect it will take another two to three years for the transformation strategy to be fully implemented across the organisation. 

The reasons for this delay in progress are similar across the different functions of the public sector. Systems complexity was commonly cited as hindering transformation, while the skills shortage is having its own impact. Almost all healthcare and central government organisations are concerned that current employees don’t have the right skills and training to adapt to modernised systems. More than a third working in healthcare, meanwhile, are trying to recruit staff but are unable to source the right people. 

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Data headaches

Data management is causing another public sector headache. Across central government, 60% of respondents admit that large improvements are required to enable data compatibility across applications and departments, while almost half cite real-time data and reporting as number one on their wishlist. Over in healthcare, staff would most like the ability to connect and share data with other departments and services.

This reveals a major obstacle to public sector transformation projects. Having a single view of data and banishing silos is critical to operating as a slick, modern organisation, something that the public sector is a long way from presently.

All this is leading to pressure on the public sector to make huge savings, in order to fund complex, overrunning transformation projects and deal with the costs outlined earlier. Almost half of central government and healthcare organisations say their primary means of cutting costs is to cut citizen or community services.

Finding the commitment to change

The public sector is facing immense pressure on services and budgets, in the midst of skills shortages and transformation projects. Modernising central government and the health sector requires ongoing investment and full commitment to change, from the leadership down. This commitment is currently lacking at many organisations in the public sector, leading to disruption to operations, a workforce struggling to deal with new systems, and pressure to cut vital services to raise funds. Issues around data compatibility and accuracy are also making it that much harder to understand and analyse performance. 

However, for those central government and healthcare organisations that are managing to transform their operations to digital-first, the benefits are manifold: a single view of real-time, accurate data; enabling more flexible and responsive services; and more efficient ways of working, freeing up staff resources. 

The ultimate goal for the public sector is to streamline and modernise services, allowing a better understanding of their customers – the UK public – which in turn leads to a more efficient response. This is why it is so crucial for central government and healthcare to overcome these challenges they are currently facing.

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