Q&A: Unicorn projects and the public sector

Is it possible to find ‘unicorn’ projects in the public sector – those innovations that make a step-change in service delivery and provide the connection to real efficiency gains? AI, robotic process automation and machine learning are all buzzwords at the moment, but are they delivering the goods? What makes a good unicorn project?

These questions were among those answered in a Q&A session at the recent OpenText Innovation Tour event in London. In this article we share the thoughts of the panellists.


Jos Creese, former CIO Hampshire County Council & Independent Analyst:

“I have an issue with language here. There are a lot unicorn projects that turned out to be asses, mules or something else! I’ve also seen a lot of entrepreneurial, innovative projects across the public sector that have been underplayed. What matters is that the projects work and make a difference.

“The good news is that process automation, machine learning and AI is staking off, much faster than I thought likely, at local council level and in central government. Some of that is targeting the big transactional stuff. We read a lot in the press about automation of repetitive transactions, maybe with intelligence built around it. The really interesting developments involve what’s behind it where we start to use these tools to do interpretations or replace some of the professional roles, which will fundamentally change the relationship of the public sector to the public.

“It’ll also dramatically impact on delivery of health care. There’s a mass of opportunities around better diagnosis of conditions, better intervention and more timely support based on AI and machine learning than you’ll get from a GP.

“The use of AI is, at the moment, in its infancy and focuses primarily on the customer services interface. Above and beyond just performing transactions, AI is asking questions, but there is a lot more potential to be realised.”


Stephen Roberts, Author of Digital Policing Review & Independent Analyst:

“There are some really good examples of technology being used to help the public sector. Drones are being sent to road traffic accidents and machine learning is becoming incredibly helpful when analysing images of abuse. These negate the need for police offers to undertake incredibly difficult and emotionally fraught tasks. However, I think there’s masses of potential to do more.

“I agree with the point Jos made about language. So much of the talk about unicorns comes from the private sector and the likes of Uber and Airbnb who have essentially disintermediated and scaled up really fast to deal with demand and supply. That language so often feels alien in the public sector where there isn’t an incentive to scale up particularly and there’s no need to take away intermediaries. The idea that you could replace government with some sort of platform is not allied to the realities of service delivery at ground level.

“Where the public sector can learn from the digital disruptors, however, is the way they scale to deal with demand for new services. And there’s potential in finding new things to do. In Essex, for example, they’re using big data analysis to understand what modern slavery looks like. It’s not just nail bars and car washes – environments where people are working against their will can be understood by looking at data sets that come from local authorities and HMRC. This is revealing a hidden problem that people aren’t going to report to the police, so is enhancing services. This sort of thing is where the unicorns in policing will come from. Smarter use of data is core to it.”


Ian Owen, OpenText Healthcare Specialist & Public Governor, Blackpool NHS Trust:

“I think they do exist and they’re probably closer than most of us realise. The reason for this may be the changing nature of the public sector, driven by austerity measures. Ten years ago, return on investment (ROI) could be achieved over a period of time. Today, given the financial constraints, ROI needs to be recognised much faster, and this driving innovation.

“For example, projects are looking at GDPR compliance, artificial intelligence and how structured and unstructured information can be brought together, in ways that deliver rapid returns. The NHS and clinical data management is a good case in point. We’re looking at ways to take legacy applications out of the way so that we can find some savings that can then be used to deliver services on the frontline. We’re also working with organisations to see how we can get rid of back office systems that are expensive to maintain and introduce new ways of working.

“These projects, that we don’t often talk about, are, in my opinion, the unicorns that are delivering real change.”


Like this? Then don’t miss the first part of our Q&A from the OpenText Innovation Tour all about the case for smarter data. Click here for more.

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