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April 18, 2017

Digital Transformation: plugging the skills gap

Full digital transformation will not happen overnight but when government and the private sector work together in a way that’s beneficial for society, it can be achieved.

By James Nunns

In February, the Government Digital Service (GDS) published its Government Transformation Strategy 2017 to 2020, outlining how the public sector is planning to use digital services to transform the relationship between citizen and state.

Bob Pickles, Head of Corporate & Government Affairs, Canon UK.

The report highlights the benefits digital transformation can provide to the government and how it can help to reduce the cost of services, while at the same time improving them.

However, due to a digital skills gap, the public sector is struggling to take full advantage of the benefits digital can bring. This lack of technical expertise and digital proficiency is hampering the ability to deliver digital services and must be addressed if we are to embrace digital transformation in the public sector.


Benefits of digitising

The aim of the GDS’ transformation strategy is to “make the government itself a digital organisation”. Digital transformation brings a multitude of positives for both the government and its citizens and this new strategy is a step towards a fully digitised, seamless and efficient government experience.

Perhaps one of the simplest examples of how digitising a service is beneficial for both the government and citizens is one we’re all familiar with: tax disc renewal. The process is now fully automated meaning both cost and time efficiencies are made; it’s simpler for users and cheaper for government.

There’s no reason why this type of digitisation cannot happen across additional areas of the public sector and we are slowly seeing it spread. X-rays, for example, are now digitised in the NHS allowing for appointment times to be reduced as results are ready immediately and presented in a better format. As a result, doctors can see a higher number of patients.

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All sectors of the government have to store huge amounts of data, often for long periods of time; for example prisoner records must be kept for as long as the prisoner lives, and huge quantities of personal medical records have to be stored and shared across the NHS. Digitisation means that the costly and cumbersome storage of paper records is no longer necessary and thanks to information and records management systems, data storage has completely transformed.

The final benefit is the potential of ‘big data’. If analysed correctly, the insights from data can benefit most parts of the public sector. However, with big data comes security concerns. It’s important that employees are educated in how to handle the data correctly and securely.


Addressing a lack of digital proficiency

The digital skills gap exists, at least in part, because the public sector has spent 20 years outsourcing IT to the private sector. In doing so, a critical knowledge base has been eroded and the public sector must now look to re-build this intelligence internally to deliver efficiencies and productivity.

The government has already started to invest in its vision for the future and the Industrial Strategy launched by the Cabinet Office in early March, focuses on the business priorities facing both public and private sector employers in the future. The 10 Pillars also clearly define the government’s thinking.

In April 2017, the Apprenticeship Levy is due to go live and will for the first time focus employers, including public sector bodies, on building capability from within. This investment in the future skills base will certainly be key to the government’s success. Canon has recently recruited its 20th apprentice with the aim of providing programmes and positions that can help fill the gaps in the wider industry and encourage young people into careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

Also recently announced was The Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Budget Statement on 8th March, which highlighted some significant areas for investment, aligning perfectly with the need for digital transformation. High up the list is the government’s backing for a 5G network. The overall goal is to have more people and businesses better connected, so that the UK can lead the way in new industries like AI, robotics and connected devices (or the ‘Internet of Things’).

The government’s 5G strategy also calls for industry and public sector bodies to work together and decide how 5G can best be rolled out. The government has called on businesses to extend connected services locally (with the help of £200m of government investment), identify how 5G can be delivered profitably and identify ways to reduce the cost of related digital infrastructure. Companies that work closely with government are perfectly suited for these tasks, with firms sharing best practice between public sector partners and helping to boost frontline services through digital advances.

Ultimately, it is knowledge and training that will allow us to plug the current digital skills gap. We must retrain and educate employees with the skills needed to work in the public sector in the 21st century. We need to impart knowledge to young people, both through apprentice programmes and in schools so that when they enter the workforce they are fully equipped to deal with modern digital demands.

Full digital transformation will not happen overnight but when government and the private sector work together in a way that’s beneficial for society, it can be achieved. And when it is, we’ll have a more cost effective, speedy and efficient government for everyone.

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