Virginia Choy, CEO of PretaGov, explains how developer shortages will slow digital transformation in the public sector, and why low-code form builders could empower non-technical staff and accelerate the channel shift
The government is pushing hard to move public services online and they have made several pledges on behalf of the NHS and the Department for Work and Pension (DWP). Their latest policy paper, Government Digital Transformation Strategy, details how they will transform all citizen-facing services, full departments and internal government processes by 2020.
While progress has been made, efforts so far have used a tremendous amount of resource to hard code, customise and deploy software using an army of developers who are becoming overwhelmed with the demands placed upon them. We are facing a global shortage of developers which means the process of getting government services ‘online’ will be no easy feat.
According to our research, moving 100 paper-based forms online using traditional hard-coding methods – whereby digital services are fixed in such a way that they cannot be altered without having to go back to the original developers – would take 230 years and £150m**. This is equivalent to nine return trips to Pluto or employing 487 more nurses in the NHS***.
It is clear more traditional methods are not sustainable, and current strategies of using developer-only teams will not deliver the government’s objectives. Given the apparent lack of resource and budget, how will they move services online? One solution is to guide them out of the expensive quagmire they find themselves in, and encourage organisations to use low code, easy to use platforms to build digital services comprised of eforms, automated workflow and backend integration.
Getting to grips with low code
Low-code products empower non-technical team members to roll out digital government faster by enabling them to build applications to capture data, automate workflow and integrate with backend systems with little or no code. It allows organisations to easily move public services online and automate internal processes by relying less heavily on technical input. If custom business logic is required then the IT team can do this with minimal, easy-to-learn coding. As a result, IT specialists become enablers rather than a bottleneck, and there’s no need for expensive consultants.
Traditionally, when organisations have wanted to develop an application to meet their specific requirements, they have had to rely on developers. Developers are a limited resource and in short supply and as a result, this traditional “high-code” route would often lead to untenable project lead times, particularly if you wanted to develop several applications at once. Consequently, your IT team, through no fault of its own, becomes a bottleneck. The alternative option – to hire in an external consultant – is very expensive, which means you would probably not be able to afford to execute all the projects you would like to.
A low-code platform eliminates these problems. It enables rapid application delivery with minimal hand-coding using drag and drop editors with visual development tools, which means there is no need for deployments. The real advantage comes from the fact that it enables the non-technical staff to develop it, such as business analysts, who are working closely with end users, becoming so-called “citizen developers” or power users. All your technical staff need to do is implement customised backend integration or complex business logic.
Even intelligent eForms can be built quickly because repetitive business processes can be scripted by your technical staff once and added to drop down menus. As a result, activating commonly used backend integrations can be implemented with just a single click.
With low-code platforms, the employees that know the business better than anyone become empowered to develop applications that meet their precise needs, and the IT workforce becomes a powerful enabler, able to rapidly deploy applications. Moreover, it frees them up to focus on other key strategic IT issues.
The benefits of low code
A low-code platform offers government and public sector organisations a route to accelerate the release of digital government tools such as eForms, video and workflow automation. An example of this is our work with NHS Digital. The Department of Health recently began using a low-code form builder to implement digital discharge forms, which allows them to better manage workflows between hospitals and social care, ultimately freeing up vital resources and reducing the discharge delays experienced by some patients.
Using low-code forms can transform non-technical team members into highly productive enablers of digital transformation, and ensure the applications are fit for purpose because they are developed by the people who know the processes inside out. The technology can be personalised to ensure branding and ‘house style’ are enforced easily, and give the valuable IT team more time to customise business processes, such as integrating existing systems or adding specific complex functionality.
Far from taking responsibilities away from the IT staff, low code platforms enable them to create more online services and delegate non-technical tasks to employees that live and breathe the services. Developers and IT personnel chooses the career because they enjoy handling challenging development tasks; they don’t want to spend hours adding fields to forms. Low code platforms will allow them to work more efficiently on challenging technical tasks.
While the government’s desire to be an entirely digitised organisation is admirable, there is a difference between aspiration and reality. Until they re-evaluate their approach to digital transformation, they will not be able to shift public services into high gear.
**Estimate is based on time and cost of hard coding the GOV.UK 25 exemplar digital services
***Estimate based on a full-time nurse costing an average of £30.5k annually