What does the future hold for public sector technology?

We are increasingly driving a more digital government, using innovative technologies such as social, mobile, analytics and cloud to transform organisations and to deliver the more inclusive and efficient public services that citizens in this digital age demand. So, what will the future of public sector technology look like? Paul Tomlinson, CEO of IEG4, an enabler of digital services for the public sector, shares his views on this.

There is no doubt that the technology we have in mind for the government of the future will be something very different from what we know today. Whether or not you believe that the government lags behind the private sector now in terms of digital transformation, in a few years, a whole new bunch of digital natives or millennials will be in charge – and they are unlikely to be satisfied with public services based on current technology, which by then will be a couple of decades old.

 

Rise of the robot

The buzzword on everyone’s lips at the moment is artificial intelligence (AI). It’s certain that predictive forecasting and AI will be useful in forecasting and enabling future service provision. Recently, a major government-commissioned report urged the creation of a programme to support the use of this technology. In fact, Culture Secretary Karen Bradley said: “I want the UK to lead the way in artificial intelligence. It has the potential to improve our everyday lives – from healthcare, to robots that perform dangerous tasks. We already have some of the best minds in the world working on artificial intelligence, and the challenge now is to build a strong partnership with industry and academia to cement our position as the best place in the world to start and grow a digital business across the UK public sector.”

Instead of costly call centres in local councils which have limited operating times, voice responses will be in the form of robots, using AI, relaying information to citizens, in whatever language or medium they choose.

Chatbots will grow alongside social media to become a primary source of question and answer process interaction between a citizen and a council. This will not be limited to typing questions and receiving simple text back. With the right infrastructure, your interaction with a bot can be verbal.

Smart chatbots will learn, deferring unknown questions to a council officer, but then adding the given answer to their increasing knowledge base. Additionally, smart bots will be able to “read” data from back office silo databases, and “tell” the citizen what he or she needs to know.

 

Data analytics is the key

Another trend we are already starting to see is services centred around the citizen. In healthcare, it is expected that there will be place-based care, and local hyper-directories which will be accessed by citizens through dedicated applications. Wherever government holds data about someone, the citizen will expect the public sector to know who they are and to use that data to deliver a great end-to-end service experience, personalised with instant answers to their questions, and the ability to track progress against service level requests. Data analytics will enable better targeting of services in these directories and be used to highlight areas of poor or non-existent provision.

Of course, examples of data sharing in the public sector exist already. The DVLA shares its data to enable those responsible for senior railcard applications to see the evidence that the agency already has, thus eliminating the expense and inconvenience of citizens and third parties handling the same evidence twice or more. However, in the future, I expect this sharing of data to be across multi-tier government.

For example, the DVLA may be interacting with a taxi licensing process in a local authority – this can be achieved with a smart API, without the need to pass data both ways. For example, a local authority could push data to the DVLA such as “surname”, “driving licence number” and “postcode”, and just receive a “true” or “false” response, enabling the application to progress. This interaction could be in real-time across secure pathways, saving many lapsed processing days and giving council officers and citizens time to process evidence.

 

Difficult judgements ahead

There are ongoing challenges to digital transformation in the public sector, and there will certainly be more in the future. Local government services often require difficult judgements even in routine processes – for example, the provision of benefits – and dealing with complex cases requires time and skill. There can be a conflict, however, as council employees currently spend a lot of time on the mundane elements of the process, giving them less time for considering the evidence and thinking through judgements that are not routine.

The outlook is already changing, however, with the emergence of Robotic Processing Automation (RPA). RPA provides a new, more efficient approach to dealing with those routine tasks. There is already the potential to free up valuable staff time from the mundane, enabling them to focus on the complex decisions and interactions that really need the human touch.

As an example, North Tyneside and ENGIE worked with IEG4 to create the new benefit claim process using RPA – Richard Abba, Project lead at ENGIE explains: “The robot software enters the data case by case, just like a human operator would, and proceeds with the processing based on business rules.  As it is following a process it will do everything it is asked to do, with no mistakes, so there is no possibility of human error or a process stage being accidently missed out. The robots are 100% accurate.

Richard continues: “We can build far more conditionally, based on outcomes and individual circumstances, into complex processes using RPA than would be able to through a traditional API route. This enables massive efficiencies to be built directly into the system.”

RPA can also consistently automate the implementation of decisions based on council rules, just leaving the subjective to interpretation by the council officers. Soon enough, RPA will be commonplace in every area of processing, whether in the public or private sector.

The technological implementation of rules within citizen-facing web forms has been available for some time. However, government has been slow to adopt this relatively straightforward technology, which is used extensively in the private sector. The implementation of rules enables a “form” to give a definitive “yes” or “no” to a service request, based on the council rules and the data the citizen inputs, with non-conclusive cases being deferred to a council officer for investigation and decision. This has advantages around both the citizen experience and time saving for the citizen and council. However, council culture, and the willingness to “let go” of decisions to technology has meant adoption has been low.

 

The future’s bright

Councils may have been slow to adopt some of the newer technologies prevalent today. But, speaking with those working in government, I see this changing. It is changing as a result of pressure and expectation from citizens, pressure and expectation from an efficiency or cost-saving point of view, and pressure and expectation from officers themselves, who now want to provide an ‘Amazon-like’ experience for their citizens. In my opinion anyway, in the not too distant future, all of the above technologies I mention will be mature. However, the key will be what the generation born since 2000 will expect from government technology in the future. And, who knows what that will be?

Right now though, public service leaders need to embrace these upcoming trends and understand the impact on delivering more inclusive public services for the future whilst ensuring that digital trust is built and maintained. By observing digital innovations in the private sector, the public sector can accelerate the benefits of a digital government.

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