Thursday, 1st October 2020

Why the public sector needs a smarter approach to digital transformation

By Darren Watkins, managing director for VIRTUS Data Centres.

In the UK, there are an increasing number of government transformation programmes underway, designed to manage the introduction of new technology and associated changes. 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 per cent) characterised the impact on their domain as significant.

As departments embrace innovative technologies such as social, mobile, analytics and cloud to deliver the more inclusive and efficient public services that citizens demand - whether it’s an online portal for tax returns, chatbot apps for customer interactions or large-scale smart city services - technology has become a vital part of public life. Today, there are at least 19 such digital transformation programmes in operation, together costing the taxpayer almost £38 billion.

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 UK government’s clear commitment to using technology to improve services and save money, there is still a long way to go before the public sector can boast a truly efficient digital strategy. Compounding the complexity in this highly regulated world - any technological initiative must be trusted, secure and reliable.

The government does indeed recognise that digital transformation programmes are “extremely challenging”[1] and that the risks of not transforming are significant, jeopardising the future quality, value for money, relevance and quality of public services. So, what does it take for wide scale digital transformation to succeed in a cash-strapped, highly regulated world - where any technological advancement must be inclusive and cater for all?

The journey to a smarter approach

Some reports[2] show 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, compared to “citizen demand” which takes top position across the other regions it 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’s needed is a broader strategy which harnesses the power of technology to provide for all, in an inclusive, accessible and sustainable way. And it’s here that the “smart city” approach comes in.

Over the past decade, worldwide awareness of the potential of smart cities has grown and 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.

There are a range of definitions of a smart city, but the consensus is that smart cities use Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, actuators, and technology to connect components across the city. This connects every layer of a city, from the air to the street to the underground. It's when data is derived from everything that is connected - and used to improve the lives of and communication between citizens and the government - that a city becomes truly smart.

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 places with car charging facilities, as well as automated waste collection systems that reduce the traffic of garbage trucks by up to 90 per cent. Added to this, the municipality is embracing smart grids and real-time energy monitoring pilots that aim for a 15 per cent reduction in energy usage, and apps that plan the most efficient traffic routes with any type of transportation method.

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, whilst smart lighting may improve footfall around physical shopping centres, boosting sales for local businesses.

Putting the infrastructure in place

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.

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 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 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, is vitally important to organisations across the board. The implications of not getting it right are significant.For example, failures in the network could result in transport systems being shut down, power outages and huge disruption to citizens.

The right infrastructure to support the demands of technology powered living means lots of connectivity, storage and computing power, and this 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. And, as more and more applications are required to service immediate engagement – such as media streaming or payments - data centres must also be placed correctly for this type of need.

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


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

It’s vital for digitally savvy public sector organisations to look “under the hood” at the infrastructure. Whilst front-end products and services are shaping a new approach in digital government, it’s 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.

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