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Public Sector IT: Beige office and Windows 98 PC or Apps and iPads?

Technology in the public sector has always been a topic of debate. For most it is seen as outdated and expensive; for others, the sector’s use of IT is seen as an area of untapped potential. When I think about public sector IT I think of a small beige office with brown wood panelled walls, a Windows 98 PC and expensive failed attempts at modernisation, not tablet computers, smartphones and social networks.

Our latest UKFast round table brought together representatives from across the board: from fire and rescue to digital development to venture into the murky depths of public sector IT.

As usual the debate was led by our very own communications director, Jonathan Bowers and the accompanying six panellists were:

  • Tim Bevington – head of corporate communications at Cheshire Fire and Rescue
  • David Carter – head of Manchester Digital Development Agency
  • Jon Toothill – client service director at Lightbox Education
  • Tom Cheesewright – communications consultant and founder of IO Communications
  • James Brown – head of communications, marketing and engagement for Liverpool Community Health NHS Trust
  • John McGorman – programme delivery manager, Customer First for Birmingham City Council.

The panel quickly identified that the old-fashioned red tape and excessive regulations is the main stumbling block for the sector’s modernisation. Toothill explained how outdated policies are strangling the adoption of new technologies, citing You Tube and social media as an example.

He said: “Schools’ access to information on the web is very limited. However there are a lot of initiatives for teachers to share knowledge and best practice and these are the best channels to achieve this. There is a definite conflict of trying to control what people can do to prevent them wasting time but also giving them access to things that can help them improve and develop.”

Toothill makes a great point: how are schools and teachers (and the rest of the sector for that matter) meant to embrace the internet as an integral part of modern working when the limitations still portray the internet as a hindrance rather than a massive help?

Looking at social media, the panel recognised that the public sector has been exceedingly slow at integrating a method of communication that has instantly swept the nation. Bevington explained how he believes the ‘fear factor’ is controlling the public sector stance on social networks.

He said: “With social media, we see in the press how the misuse of the system by one individual can affect the whole reputation of the company. This then leads to inhibitive restrictions across the board and there are web teams working on things that they cannot even see themselves – it causes ridiculous conflicts in being able to take things forward.”

Brown, who works for Liverpool Community Health NHS Trust who have dipped their toes in the social media pool with campaigns such as ‘tweet a doctor’, explained how pointless these restrictions have now become.
He explained: “The irony of the restrictions is that they are in place to stop people wasting time but now so many of us have smartphones that we can just use these to access the internet and still waste time at our desks if we wanted to. As an NHS Trust we have thousands of followers on Twitter but I had to access the site through my iPhone to do anything with it.”

Cheesewright then flipped the red tape discussion onto procurement. He explained that during his time working at a small digital company it was so difficult to pitch for a public sector contract that it became part of company policy not to. The barriers to bidding pushed their costs up and in the end it was easier to bid for large multinational corporations than for smaller public sector contracts.

Carter explained the situation from a council point of view saying that “in many cases the savings made from outsourcing are cancelled out because as a council they have to adhere to contract compliance.”

Now I do not know a lot about procurement and outsourcing in the public sector but it seems that wrapping something that could potentially save the sector millions of pounds so tightly in red tape that it becomes a cost is crazy especially in the current financial climate.

The financial situation of the sector also cropped up several times throughout the debate; one of the main conversation points was how to drive innovation in times of such austerity.

Brown highlighted the importance of maintaining healthy relationships with higher education establishments and offering work placements for students. He said: “We have been working with a student from one of the local universities and the insight that he has brought is incredible. We also had a student on work experience not long ago who developed a whole app for us, in two weeks he had a prototype up and running.”

Apps and ‘open data’ were the hot topics of discussion in pushing the public sector to embrace a more modern approach, potentially at little cost to the organisations themselves. Cheesewright described several apps that he has on his phone and tablet computer that monitor health aspects from diet to inhaler usage.

He said: “It would be fantastic for the NHS to embrace this technology so that I could add this information to my NHS record rather than somewhere like Google storing it. The NHS would not have to develop the app they could just release an API to an accessible part of our records and people will develop the app themselves.

“Having open data allows people to then develop apps, websites and innovative ways to present the data themselves.”

It was agreed by all that as a whole the sector needs more commercial thinking behind it. Private sector companies have ingrained expectations into the public – we expect to have up to date delivery information and be able to manage appointments and information through a website, but the public sector isn’t quite meeting these demands yet.

McGorman suggested that simple things like replicating the ‘Amazon approach’ could make all of the difference. He said: “We need to enable people to monitor the progress of services that they request from us. We need a system in place that enables people to track the arrival of a collection truck for example. For me it is one of the biggest lessons that we can learn from the private sector.

I know that I would love to have apps to monitor health issues, up to date information about when my bin will be emptied or old couch collected and have the image of a public sector that represents an the innovative country that we are. Will public sector IT ever shift its reputation?

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