How disruptive tech can solve future public sector challenges

16 May 2019 8 min. read

Sectors across the private and public domain are facing disruption in today’s agile and digital-savvy world. Mark Dunwell, a consultant at North Highland in the UK, answers five questions about how disruptive technologies could help solve tomorrow’s challenges in the public sector.

Disruptive technologies - what are they and why is everyone talking them?

Disruptive technologies traditionally refer to less-established IT market entrants with a cheaper price point. However, increasingly it is used to describe internet-era tools with the potential to change the way that internal and external services are delivered to stay ahead. As governments globally are having to match higher consumer expectations and deliver within tighter budgetary envelopes, these new solutions can increase back office efficiency, support the delivery of better frontline services and enhance real-time information for decision-making.

In what ways have governments globally been introducing new digital tools and approaches to drive great outcomes for citizens today?

Last year, the UK government set out its ambition to explore using algorithms in decision-making. This boasts everything from “data trusts” agreements held between different parties to make data sharing safe and secure, to using machine algorithms to review massive data sets for inconsistencies in frontline service delivery. This initiative mirrors exciting examples of public sector innovation taking place around the world.

  • Singapore has committed to using artificial intelligence (AI) for anticipating traffic and security incidents, to drive operational efficiency and make the city more intelligent.
  • Estonia has implemented real-time information sharing for data registries across national health, judicial and legislative systems using blockchain technologies.
  • Robotic process automation (RPA) has driven significant efficiency gains in repeatable back office processes (finance and HR) and highly standardized tasks within the British Council’s Noida shared services centre.
  • Milton Keynes has tackled an expected population increase of 20% to 300,000 by becoming the UK’s first truly “smart city” using sensor data for recycling collection to improve citizen services.

Yet, the common thread throughout these international case studies of early stage disruption-in-action relate to their scalability. Each example reflects a small step on the journey towards ‘Government as a Platform’ – fully integrated, end-to-end citizen services which tend to be the exception, rather than the rule today.How disruptive tech can solve future public sector challenges

Over the next five years, which two disruptive technologies pose the largest opportunity for public sector services?

Effective integration of data at scale will reduce pressure on citizen services and deliver better user experiences. Transport for London enriches contactless payment transaction data with systemic information on footfall from bridge crossings to proactively advise bus and train travelers of alternative routes for planned maintenance or station closures. The Australian Government has also launched an opt-out secure online health information summary – My Health Record – to provide all citizens with a one-stop shop for patient data; merging vital medicinal and allergen information into one place. Both examples demonstrate the value of investing time upfront to strategically agree which data sets are needed across multiple organizations to future proof service design.

Natural language applications bring new possibilities for government to automate the process of communicating information from multiple data sets. For example, producing easy-to-digest, standardised reports quickly and efficiently is something which Quill, a powerful natural language generation platform, offers. Forbes have already seen the immense impact this has had on their business by no longer manually producing traditionally dense reports.

What are the biggest barriers to successfully adopting new technologies across central and local government today?

One immediate impact is a greater reliance on those who “get it”, as there is a need for organisations to build digital into their DNA. Bringing in those with experience exploiting new technologies and managing to build blended delivery teams around a common goal is critical. Therefore, knowledge of actively working with APIs, understanding how to manage releases in an evergreen context and re-shaping career pathways need to be prioritised. A large part of this will also depend upon having a sustainable talent pipeline, both at junior and senior levels, to support innovation and continuous improvement.

Another aspect to consider is the creation of new roles and capabilities. The introduction of RPA reduces the need for staff to carry out time-consuming, highly standardised repeatable tasks. As a result, the focus for certain key technology roles will likely change to that of more value-add such as quality assurance and decision making where a value judgement is required (e.g. exceptions handling). The change management around how staff are supported through these changes needs to be carefully managed.

Adopting a human-centred approach throughout the design and implementation of disruptive technologies is the third-biggest challenge. Putting real people at the heart of any service design or work to understand how user needs can best be addressed will produce more sustainable, better services. Importantly, new developments in AI mean that having a healthy bias towards humans when anything is designed and deployed will ensure that there is a strong ethical framework in place.

“There are many exciting examples of digital innovation…. each example reflects a small step on the journey towards ‘Government as a Platform’ – fully integrated, end-to-end citizen services.”
Mark Dunwell, North Highland

What are the top two trends, which have the biggest potential to change the way citizen-facing services are delivered?

The Internet of Things (IoT) and a fundamental cultural shift in the way that internet-era organisations adopt leading edge technologies such as machine learning will likely have the biggest impacts.

The greater integration of data from components or devices connected via the internet together (known as IoT) will create tailored user experiences that will reshape the nature of interactions between government and its citizens. The widespread adoption of wearable technology will provide digital institutions with a completely new rich set of data to “colour in” their portrait of who you are as an individual. Microsoft’s HealthVault gives users the choice to share their fitness data with doctors, providing a more complete view of a patient’s overall health and wellbeing than might otherwise be achieved from a more traditional consultation. When you take the very real cost of misdiagnosis to individuals, having an increasingly connected set of services underpinned by a greater instance of networked devices continually exchanging data, the value to taxpayers is huge.

Our mindsets towards adopting new ways of working will also need to shift as the usage of conversational user interfaces have been predicted to be no more than ten years away. Bots triaging call data, leading to better customer services represent the most common part of the puzzle, which organisations typically focus on. However, the fundamental scaffolding – internal processes and people – that support continual releases alongside development and operations being more culturally and organisationally aligned (DevOps) also need to be considered. Embedding a “pilot and learn” approach by default in the creation of new services is most crucial overall.

Related: Governments should put the citizen journey first in public services.

The interview with Mark Dunwell is part of a series of interviews with leaders from Cordence Worldwide (North Highland is a member firm) on the digital future of government services.