Digital transformation: public sector needs a back to basics approach

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Written by Darren Watkins, Managing Director, VIRTUS Data Centres

What does it take for wide scale digital transformation to succeed in a cash-strapped, highly regulated world, where any technological advancement must cater to a range of needs?

The UK is increasingly seeing the digitalisation of government services and processes, as departments embrace innovative technologies such as social, mobile, analytics and cloud platforms to deliver the more inclusive and efficient public services that citizens demand. A recent report by Deloitte found that three quarters of leaders in UK public sector organisations believe that digital technologies are disrupting the sector; nearly all (96%) characterised the impact of digital transformation on their domain as significant.

However, whether or not you believe the old adage that government lags behind the private sector in terms of digital transformation, it must be acknowledged that squeezed public sector budgets make adopting digital technologies on a large scale difficult. And despite the introduction of a range of online services there is still a long way to go before the public sector can boast a truly efficient digital strategy.

The journey to a smarter approach

Some reports indicate that the UK is at the early stages of its digital journey, where the primary aims are to cut costs and make savings, rather than to embrace the truly transformative potential of digital disruption. Deloitte tells us that today, budget pressures are identified as the top driver for digital transformation in the UK, in contrast to ‘citizen demand’ which takes top position across the other regions Deloitte has surveyed.

This reflects an approach which, at the moment, focuses on discrete initiatives; such as a move to more digital communications with the public, or workplace programmes which aim to provide government workers with digital skills. However, what is needed in the UK is a broader strategy which harnesses the power of technology to provide for all in an inclusive, accessible and sustainable way – this is where the ‘smart city’ approach comes in.

Over the past decade, worldwide awareness of the potential of smart cities has grown by leaps and bounds. Countries, cities, provinces and governments have realised that they can improve the lives of millions of citizens with the opportunities that digital transformation and revolutionary technology offer.

In Helsinki’s Smart Kalasatama district, for example, co-creation and agile development take centre stage. Its residents are the initiators and testers of new technology and smart services – and the local authority reports that it wants to become so efficient that its residents gain one hour of extra time per day. Smart projects in the district include parking spaces with car charging facilities, as well as automated waste collection systems which reduce garbage truck traffic by up to 90%. Added to this, the municipality is embracing smart grids and real time energy monitoring pilots which aim for a 15% reduction in energy usage; and apps which plan the most efficient traffic routes with any type of transportation method.

In the smart education sphere, Finnish schools are widely known for their forward thinking education systems and are moving away from conventional pedagogy towards a more inquiry-based method of learning. Open data innovation and hackathons, as well as open app competitions, are part of this and are held on an annual basis.

Businesses too are benefiting from a smart city environment, seeing greater efficiency in their operations and ultimately better service to customers. For instance, improved traffic management will improve supply chain and logistics for online retailers, while smart lighting may improve footfall around physical shopping centres, boosting sales for local businesses.

A back to basics approach to digital transformation

A broad and collaborative approach to smart living is vital to public sector digital transformation; and the UK could learn lessons from other territories in what success looks like.

But truly transforming government through the power of digital technologies will be a journey; and schemes like those in Helsinki and beyond are only possible when the necessary IT infrastructure is in place to support them. Digital infrastructures must be able to physically link dispersed machines and sensors, so they can exchange information in real time – and in order to tap into the potential value of big data, interconnections between people and applications, data, content, clouds and networking needs to be seamless.

Being able to store data effectively and being able to access and interpret it as meaningful actionable information are vitally important to organisations across the board. This will offer a huge advantage to the institutions that do it well. On the flip side, the implications of not getting it right are similarly significant. Failures in the network could result in transport systems being shut down, power outages and huge disruption to citizens.

This means that it is absolutely crucial that public sector organisations have the right infrastructure in place to support the demands of living powered by technology. Lots of connectivity, storage and computing power is required, all of which is facilitated by the data centre.

When it comes to getting the data centre strategy right, government departments and local authorities have significant challenges to overcome. Most will have to mix the old and the new, dealing with legacy infrastructure as well as creating new facilities. For some this might mean that traditional ‘core’ connectivity hubs will have to work alongside smaller data centres optimised for edge computing. Additionally, as more and more applications are required to service immediate engagement – such as media streaming or payments – data centres must be placed correctly for this type of need.

The extensive nature of digital transformation needs something beyond a company or government department’s in-house storage capabilities: this presents significant opportunities for data centre providers to help. Already we are seeing many government departments and wider organisations turning to third party IT suppliers to help them navigate their data centre strategies; engaging with colocation facilities which provide the best in interconnectivity, flexibility and scalability. This is a trend which looks set to continue and grow.

For any wide scale digital transformation to succeed, it is vital to begin with getting the basics right, ensuring the impact of new technologies on infrastructure is managed. It is no exaggeration to say that as UK cities grow, whether they thrive and deliver a good quality of life to millions of citizens is down to the IT backbone which underpins them.

It is vital for digitally savvy public sector organisations to look ‘under the hood’ at their digital infrastructure. While front end products and services are shaping a new approach in digital government, it is the back end, the IT, which powers it. This means that the public sector’s focus now needs to be firmly on the data centre.

Originally published here.

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