Despite budget cuts, technology can enable public sector to thrive

Balancing the books will always be one of the biggest challenges facing public sector organisations. Budget cuts have bitten in the last five years, and more are still to come. This is a golden opportunity to do things differently – whether that’s improving the services provided, streamlining their processes and overall becoming more efficient with a smaller budget.

The public sector has reduced outgoings by nearly £20 billion in efficiency savings in the last 10 years. Simply put, the trend towards upping the game started long ago.

As the previous administration focused on digital delivery there is arguably less work to do now to become ‘digital first’ than there might have been.

Better technology and falling barriers to implementation mean that shifting to digital services and digital working is something of a no-brainer. Consumers are immersed in technology already and many want everything they do to have the same experience as the latest iPhone or their favourite social media sites.

A growing number of consumers are accustomed to completing all kinds of tasks online, from banking to video calls, so they have come to expect the same level of ease in communicating with the public sector, whether it means paying a parking fine or registering a complaint about a noisy neighbour.

Best practice should now be common practice

What we used to call good practice should now be common practice; all organisations are thinking how they can save money and improve margins. In the public sector that means  looking for ways to pay down the deficit and address the debt, at the same time as providing a first class service. This is the way it has always been in the private sector.

Technology lets organisations do more with less, but even if it didn’t, taxpayers would still expect this transformation to take place. They’d want to see it directly everywhere and every way that they deal with government.

I worked in the civil service for eight years and I saw the transformation to digital begin with the Government Gateway. Now for a new generation of young people it is second nature, they expect to be able to do everything digitally, remotely, from anywhere at any time.

The public sector now needs to decide which parts of their business are ripe for a technological make-over. They also must allow for citizens who are getting to grips with simple online tasks but still prefer to speak to a real person on the phone; this need may remain for while.

In the private sector transitions of this nature are for the most part, simpler: companies make big changes to suit the majority of customers and then work on the groups that weren’t covered first time round. But this is much more controversial in government – how can you include everyone? It’s tough questions like these that public sector leaders must address in order to see progress.

A blueprint for change

In general it’s important that organisations are decisive about the move to digital technologies such as cloud computing for data storage as an example. They must create a clear and achievable vision, make sure they have tools in place to measure success against that vision, and then execute it.

They must take a holistic approach, incorporating not just digital services but also creating efficient online systems and processes internally that the public don’t see.

I deal on a daily basis with customers that have multiple devices on multiple platforms and work with them to create solutions that integrate all of that together into an elegant system. Our own experience of this at Vodafone helps us  to understand customer needs and work hand in hand with those customers on a business transformation.

We have some excellent stats on changing the way we work and using technology, for example, has reduced absenteeism, increased retention of talent and helped hit performance targets, so becoming a ready business is about mobilising their working environment and changing attitudes towards how technology can fuel change for staff, customers and operations, not just saving money.

The propensity to become equipped for the future is really demonstrated well in some of our clients including the HM Revenue and Customs. Evidence is in these organisations’ leadership, culture and enthusiasm to mobilise appropriately their teams quickly.

Driving change through leadership

Great managers within public sector lead by example and show they are prepared to change old formulas to improve their own output. They communicate the reasons for making changes and, of course, give consideration to the types of technology required and its cost.

The benefits to organisations of adopting this mind-set are clear. It’s possible to cut operational costs by about a third, for example by removing the need for every employee to be in the office all of the time as or carrying out tasks wherever you are through flexible working. Estate costs come down because the workforce is mobile, people are more productive and have effective time; they are motivated by target-hitting and generally feel better about their contribution.

Cost-cutting in the public sector is a real challenge, but it is also a genuine opportunity to streamline and upgrade, laying the foundations for brilliant public services for generations to come.