Public sector organisations are caught in a catch 22 with digital transformation. They know the value technology can bring to their services – both for the people that use them and their teams that deliver them, but budget constraints are holding everything up.
And when there’s enough in the budget to launch a project, organisations can run into the issue of “software lock-in”. Tech upgrades usually mean removing legacy systems, and that can cause disruption to the service it sits behind. So when the authority combines the initial cost of starting the project with the costs of those disturbances, their return on investment very quickly starts to diminish.
Exciting tech talent coming into the sector
But in spite of that conundrum, digital transformation has to find a way to develop. Chief Digital Officer Amit Shanker is setting out his blueprint in the London Borough of Newham.
An expert in data analytics, Amit joined Newham earlier this year having already built up an impressive CV in the private sector, working for world-leading brands such as Microsoft, HSBC and JLL.
One of the big obstacles he points out is that digital skills are in high demand, so they don’t come cheap. Whereas private sector businesses are happy to invest in permanent roles, Shanker believes public sector organisations have got into the habit of hiring people on temporary contracts to save on costs. But that assumption usually represents a false economy.
Tech success needs long-term thinking
To break that cycle, he thinks the government shouldn’t be expecting that return on investment overnight – authorities need to be given the confidence to set more longer-term goals.
“Unlike businesses, public sector organisations undertaking digital transformations would benefit from an ROI horizon of five, 10, or 15 years, which provides a more convincing impetus to invest up front.”
Amit is practicing what he preaches. In the short-term, he’s found some quick wins to make their systems easier to use. In the medium term, he wants to modernise the tech stack, and the longer-term goal is all about being more ambitious with the internet of things.
Local authorities have to invest wisely
Authorities also need to be really strategic about finding those areas that can deliver tangible value, so they can win over more advocates and hopefully increase funding. Like in Swindon Borough Council, for example.
In a collaboration with Amazon Web Services, the council is using AI to improve fly-tipping tip-offs. Anyone who spots illegally dumped items can use a map on the council’s website to pinpoint the location, upload photos and add descriptions. AI can then analyse all the information to work out the right vehicle to send out and remove the waste. It means they’re able to better manage resources and prioritise removing hazardous waste.
And the results are clear to see – they’ve cut the average clear-up time from 10 days down to four.
Sarah Talbot, the leader of the council’s emerging technologies team, says that proof points like these are really helping to shift the culture around tech and get more of the naysayers on side: “They can see the value of the work – and that our focus and drivers are around helping with real issues in tangible new ways.”
So, to sum up, organisations need to be given the licence to think longer term, and be strategic in selecting those areas that are going to make the biggest impact. And they also need the talent and visionaries in place who know how to make these plans happen. Which makes it all the more encouraging seeing people like Amit moving into the sector. Watch this space.
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