How do we create space for individuals to do more with their time? How do we free them up from the mundane and repetitive tasks they have to do? How do we free people up to spend more time on strategic projects or on public facing tasks rather than back office tasks?
All of these are vitally important for the public sector, which is well documented to be needing to deliver more, improved services to a greater number of people than ever before, with fewer resources to play with.
So where do we start if we want to achieve this? According to Mark Gibbison, public sector sales director at Unit4, it’s all about embracing automation and the technology that’s available to us.
“The turning point for Unit4 was when we launched our Microsoft Azure partnership a couple of years ago. That allowed us to focus on the cloud using an intelligent, broad and customisable infrastructure. The move allowed us to take advantage of the automated intelligence and digital bots that Microsoft delivers.
“We’ve been able to build that predictive functionality into our ERP platform, including a digital assistant called Wanda, who can access business applications through a conversational interface. Wanda is available all the time – pervasive, but not intrusive. She automates routine operations across the organisation and learns your preferences to become even more useful over time. She acts as an interface into a system, based on the information that she’s provided, and completes automated tasks for users who can interact via their smartphone apps. By pushing tasks this way, it allows employees to do more when they’re not in the office, which of course makes them more productive.”
Gibbison adds that further potential of tools such as Wanda is realised when the functionality becomes two-way.
“In addition to users being able to interact with Wanda, the technology can interact with users. Timesheets are a classic example – users will receive a message from Wanda saying: ‘your time sheet is due on Friday, is it the same as last week?’ If that is the case, you can simply respond yes and Wanda will sort everything out.
“Technologies like this are crucial in freeing up people’s time. When interactions are slick and automated it takes away the strain and reduces the burden of mundane tasks. Automation of processes streamlines organisations – and we all know how much the public sector can benefit from this!”
Gibbison continues on to say that the public sector needs to limit user intervention wherever possible if it’s to free up valuable resources. “The public sector has been battling austerity for such a long time that there’s usually only a tiny amount of fat left to trim, if any. And what’s left is becoming harder to find. So, the answer is to look at the problem from the other side and increase productivity. If people can spend more time on higher value work, rather than repetitive, process driven admin work, it has to pay off.”
Mobile and cloud
Automation of tasks also frees up workers to be more mobile, something the public sector has been slow to adopt but is now taking off, according to Gibbison.
“I used to be a CIO at Trafford Council in the early noughties and we introduced mobile then for certain tasks. The technology just didn’t help us though – the Public Services Network (PSN) killed remote working on networks for a while and lots of organisations still haven’t got their heads around what they can and can’t do with PSN. Some local authorities are actively exploring and using Bring Your Own Device, while others just won’t entertain the thought of any kind of remote working!
“However, what we’ve seen in recent times is a real shift of mindset regarding both mobile and, linked to it, cloud technology. Eighteen months ago, when we were having a discussion in a local authority, or any other public sector organisation for that matter, it would be ‘yeah, we have a cloud strategy of sorts but we think it’s way down the line for us yet’. Every new tender that comes out now is cloud first and that cloud technology is becoming more advanced too as organisations reduce their reliance on bespoke or legacy IT.”
When asked if there has been a shift in mindset among leaders when it comes to the adoption of remote and mobile working and more trust has been out in it, Gibbison says that he very much sees the leadership of an organisation very much wanting to move forward. However, holding progress back tends to be IT and IT security.
“I think a lot of people put a lot of barriers in the way of progress and blame it on security, saying they should have this or that” he explains. “Yet, you can go to a neighbouring authority and they have a totally different attitude towards security and what’s absolutely required and what’s overkill. I think a lot of it comes down to personality. If you have a strong IT security person in a local authority who has their own ideas and their own way of doing things, it’s much harder to move forward and embrace new technologies. Overall though, businesses really want to embrace tech as it can help them save money and/or boost services.”
Given that, Gibbison would love to see a common set of IT security standards across the whole of government. “The Cabinet Office has tried to do it, but it’s subject to local interpretation. That’s the main barrier and until we have a common set of standards that everybody understands, which are clear enough to avoid local (mis)interpretation, the sector will be held back. It would help suppliers too, as we would know what we were playing with and what we had to build. We could all work together more easily, which has to be a good thing!”