Back Innovation brings efficiency in public sector delivery
We’ve written before about the challenges facing data leaders in the public sector as they continue to deliver through increasingly difficult times. As budgets tighten and civil service headcounts drop, compounded by the present data skills shortage across the sector, improving the efficiency of procurement and delivery will be essential. Data leaders and suppliers alike must be on board with re-thinking the way we work together if we want to provide user-focused digital services to the public and deliver accurate data-enabled insight to decision-makers throughout the public sector.
In difficult times, the temptation is to abandon strategic investments and longer-term planning in favour of short-term tactical savings. All very understandable, but also all very expensive, and deeply inefficient, in the longer term. If the government is serious about delivering first rate public services while reducing its overall cost base, it must look more strategically at how it makes decisions and works with its suppliers.
On that note, the cross-cutting priorities detailed in the newly published DDaT (Digital, Data and Technology) Playbook are extremely encouraging. We couldn’t agree more with their opening statement on innovation: “Innovation is not an end, but a means through which we achieve better outcomes. This is led by user needs…”
We know that delivering lasting change starts with a deep understanding of the end users. This understanding is something the civil service has in abundance, even if it isn’t always able to get it from the front-line staff engaging with the public, to the DDaT teams designing new services. This has improved exponentially over the past decade through the relentless push on user-focused design from the GDS (Government Digital Service) and champions across government – but is all too easy for DDaT technical leads to forget when they’re getting excited about the next shiny tool.
And speaking of shiny tools, we also welcome the recognition that innovation isn’t just shoe-horning the latest trend or product into an existing service. It can mean being open to changing processes, recognising that many were built around the historic limitations of technology or working practises which simply no longer exist. Suppliers are key here – the civil service should rarely be testing out “bleeding-edge” solutions, but instead taking maturing products and trying them out in a public service context.
Doing this effectively requires some investment from suppliers – so the commitment in the Playbook to publishing 18-month commercial pipelines has the potential to be transformational. It’ll be interesting to see whether these stick during these tumultuous political times; nobody who deals with the public sector will underestimate how difficult even medium-term planning can be.
Risk appetite also matters. Exploring innovative techniques means being open and honest about the fact that sometimes things don’t work, or don’t work as expected. The delivery environment for both the civil service and suppliers makes this very difficult to manage – but not at all impossible. Again, the playbook is both refreshingly honest, and sensible about this: “While it may be thought that an aversion to risk may be the best way to achieve value for money for the public, this can actually prevent us from taking advantage of new opportunities that represent better value in the long-term…”. Their commitment to outcome focused contracts which set out the desired outcomes without specifying how to get there could help.
Overall, there is a lot to do here to get things right; but also, some real, practical hope for the not-so-distant future.