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December 2018
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Digital Transformation in Government Must be Holistic and Practical

Paul Parker: SolarWinds Chief Technologist for Public Sector

By Paul Parker, Solarwinds Chief Technologist

Let’s start with the basics: the government does not exist to provide or sell IT services. It’s easy to forget this when we’re talking about public sector digital transformation, especially when current IT strategy focuses on investment in infrastructure, ROI, and innovation. That said, it’s imperative for government leaders and policy makers to keep top of mind the fact that the function of IT services in public sector is to support each organisation in delivering real services to real people, whether that be in the healthcare, protection, or civic services space.

Bearing this in mind, it’s no surprise that confusion surrounds digital transformation in the public sector. Broadly defined as the change associated with the application of digital technology to all aspects of how the organisation functions, certain recent statistics reflect how much more difficult this can be than it sounds.

For example, while the NHS has a Five Year Forward View, and has invested £4 billion in NHS digital transformation, nearly a fifth (17%) of NHS trusts and Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) have no digital transformation strategy in place. A further 24% have only just begun to develop a strategy. Similarly, the Cloud First policy is low in uptake—less than a third (30%) of NHS trusts surveyed as part of an FOI request and under two-thirds (61%) of central government departments have adopted any level of public cloud in their organisation.

Governance

This highlights one of the big differences between the U.K. and the U.S. that I have experienced: policies with clear enforcement strategies. For example, FedRAMP in the U.S. provides a clear benchmark for U.S. federal organisations—you need to shift from insecure IT to secure, nimble, and quick IT. In addition, it provides a list of accredited vendors and partners that can help organisations achieve this. In the U.K., the Cloud First policy is comparatively vague. While it sets a strong intention that the public sector should favour public cloud ahead of all other IT solutions, there are no clear ‘teeth’ to the directive, and no regimented exceptions system.

At a policy level, clearer processes are required to better define what systems need to be transformed, what should be moved to the cloud, and the rationale behind the change. Simultaneously, there needs to be consequences for trusts that choose not to comply, with the overseeing body taking a “trust but verify” approach to ensure the policy is being implemented. To support this, a clear “exception” process is needed for public sector organisations to clearly demonstrate their reasoning if they chose, for any reason, to opt for a different tactic to the public-cloud-led approach prescribed by the Cloud First policy.

Leadership

Then, at the organisational level, leaders need to think about the rationale behind their digital transformation strategy. IT investment, especially in the government, can’t be about having the shiniest toy. It has to be about serving the organisation’s core function, whether that’s saving lives in the NHS or provisioning welfare benefits for citizens.

From a strategy perspective, leaders should consider what tools and services they need to better support their service function, as opposed to what technology they want to adopt. For example, is this technology or service something that will eventually save on maintenance costs and allow us to improve this offering for our public? If it doesn’t meet these two criteria, it may be worth considering if this really is the strategic priority it first seemed. This is especially important when looking at trends such as Al or blockchain. While these both hold considerable promise for security, efficiency, and ROI, it’s important to implement these for a specific use case and business need, rather than ‘just because’ it’s on trend or another trust is deploying it.

When it comes to implementing that strategy, there is huge benefit for an organisation in leadership going that one step further—asking their team ‘what do you need from me to achieve this objective?’ By opening a dialogue with the IT teams actually executing the plan, leaders can ensure that the approach is feasible, affordable, and in line with organisation objectives.

Implementation

For the IT teams on the ground, it’s important to ensure that the leadership strategy is realised in a scalable, agile, sustainable way. One of the most staggering observations for me is the number of IT professionals working retroactively to keep systems updated. Considering that downtime is impossible with critical services, it’s about embedding redundancy so that IT practitioners have no need to service systems on the go, especially when it’s a reactive response.

Over half (58%) of public sector respondents to the SolarWinds IT Trends 2018 survey say that their IT systems are not performing at optimum levels, while three-quarters (73%) of public sector IT professionals spend more than 25% of their time reactively working to optimise performance. This is crazy—it’s like trying to fix up a car as you drive it down the highway. You can’t effectively fix the bodywork, change the oil, or inspect the brakes while hurtling down the road at 70 mph.

In IT terms, these are tasks like patch management, system updates, updated policies, and security protocols. While they seem mundane and ‘small potatoes’ compared to the excitement around AI, the impact of not properly maintaining them is significant. The WannaCry disaster in 2017 is a case in point. Overlooking basic IT hygiene can have serious implications for patient care, service delivery, and citizen trust in public entities.

Pressure to achieve “digital transformation” with limited budgets, an unclear strategy, and ageing infrastructure is unfortunately paralysing public sector IT teams. As technology offerings mature and develop at a previously unheard of rate, it’s essential that we take a step back at a governance, leadership, and practitioner level to make sure our approach to public sector IT is really grounded in helping us deliver real services to real people.

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