Five predictions for the UK public sector in 2021

UK public sector in 2021
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Dale Peters, Research Director at TechMarketView, shares his top 5 predictions for the UK public sector in 2021

Public sector organisations have faced, and continue to face, enormous challenges associated with the COVID-19 crisis. Digital services have been introduced and adapted at pace, staff have transitioned to remote working, and priorities have been reset to help mitigate the impact of the pandemic. There is a new acceptance of digital amongst public sector leaders, collaboration efforts have strengthened relationships, and many of the barriers to transformation have been stripped away.

Many of the budgetary pressures that existed prior to the pandemic have been exacerbated by the crisis. This has resulted in organisations, many of which have faced significant reductions in funding over the last decade, with limited scope to adapt without reimagining service delivery, rethinking their approach to digital and embracing new technologies.

Clearly the challenges are many, but public sector organisations need to ensure that the momentum and innovation established during the crisis is not lost. Looking across the current year, here are five trends we can expect to see in the public sector.

  1. Budgetary pressures will increase the need to automate 

With limited capacity to absorb further pressures on budgets and services, public sector organisations will need to reimagine their operating models and embrace automation. The Government has highlighted the importance of automation as a way of achieving savings and increasing productivity in the public sector. Its Automation Marketplace DPS (Dynamic Purchasing System), launched in March last year, was designed to help public sector organisations find support to design, build or buy, and use the automation solutions effectively—it should accelerate the adoption of automation across Whitehall and beyond. There will be a continued shift in the focus of automation programmes away from tactical productivity enhancements and efficiency gains towards improving outcomes for citizens and staff, and we expect automation to increasingly become embedded within existing products.

  1. Sustainability will become a differentiating factor

In September 2020, the Government launched a new model to deliver social value through its commercial activities—the impact will be felt widely across the public sector. It means social value should be explicitly evaluated during procurement, rather than just considered, and it should carry a heavy enough score to be a differentiating factor in bid evaluations. Approximately three-quarters of councils in the UK, as well as many universities and NHS trusts, have declared a Climate Emergency. Many have set 2030 as a target date for going carbon zero. Despite the pressures of the pandemic and budgetary uncertainty, climate change, sustainability and, social value more broadly, will be a growing factor when moulding contracts and selecting suppliers.

  1. Remote working will continue to bring opportunities and threats

Prior to the pandemic, just 3% of public sector workers reported they mainly worked from home; far lower than in the private sector. The rapid shift to home working, which has been a key feature of the COVID-19 crisis, has necessitated significant unplanned investment in devices, infrastructure and support services. This expenditure will continue to take its toll on future IT budgets but given the investment it will be impossible to justify a return to the old ways of working. Once we move away from the pandemic, most organisations will settle into a hybrid model, comprising both home-based and office-based work. Public sector organisations will embrace smaller, lower-cost but more flexible estates, and the ability to work remotely will facilitate more efficient and agile models of delivering public services. However, more employees working remotely will bring a host of additional challenges, such as the need to monitor the wellbeing and engagement of home-based staff and the increased threat of cybercrime.

  1. The use of AI faces increasing scrutiny

The use of data and artificial intelligence (AI) during the pandemic has raised important privacy, ethical and moral questions that will have significant implications for the future of digital technology in the public sector. AI has been applied widely in planning the national response to the pandemic, helping to predict the demand for resources and organising public health data, and the potential AI offers for improving public services more generally is enormous. However, as the fear of COVID-19 declines, concerns about data privacy and the use of AI will intensify. Public sector organisations will need to be upfront and honest with citizens about the ethical considerations associated with the technology and work hard to allay their fears.

  1. Collaboration momentum will accelerate innovation

The dramatic shift to remote working during the pandemic resulted in a wide-scale expansion in the adoption of collaboration tools. These have been rolled out across the NHS, police forces, councils and the wider public sector, enabling staff to work effectively from home, on-site or on duty. However, collaboration during the pandemic has gone way beyond enhanced communication. The fight against COVID-19 has required an urgent and global collaboration effort between governments, health systems, academia and the private sector. Relationships have been reinforced and will provide assurance for new digital programmes, which, combined with a newfound confidence in technology in the public sector, will help sustain innovation momentum. Whilst day to day pressures will inevitably start to take over, partnerships will be sustained and play a vital role in future digital transformation initiatives. Huge progress has been made, but there is still much to be done to break down the silos that exist in the public sector and ensure services are resilient to the future challenges that await.


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