How data can accelerate the UK public sector

© Yuriy Onikienko

Adrian Cooper, CTO at NetApp UK and Ireland, discusses how data can impact the UK public sector

Data is undoubtedly one of the major driving forces of global economies, fuelling progress and innovation across businesses of all sizes and permeating every industry. During the Covid-19 pandemic, we even saw at close quarters the potential data has to save lives and livelihoods, enabling governments, businesses, and public sector organisations to share critical information efficiently and ethically.

As the UK continues its recovery, it is vital that central and local governments make the most of the valuable lessons learned. Extending and accelerating the use of data in the delivery of public services can improve the lives of citizens and drive a new era of growth.

This is the purpose of the National Data Strategy (NDS) – to harness the power of data to maximise productivity, create jobs, improve public services, and position the UK as a global digital leader. To achieve these aims, organisations across all lines of government, central and local, health and social care, emergency services, education, and defence, need three things.

Firstly, they need a level of strategic understanding as to what the aims of the NDS are and why they are important. Second, they need infrastructure that is fit-for-purpose to support a new era of data-driven public services. Finally, they need the technical and digital skills to deliver these services, as well as an adaptive cultural mindset among employees.

Public sector back the National Data Strategy

According to research of public sector leaders conducted by NetApp, the NDS is that unlocking the value of data is key to driving economic growth. Three-quarters of UK public sector leaders agree that this is the case, while 73% believe it will help the UK cement its position as a global digital leader. Furthermore, organisations across the public sector are using the NDS as a guide for their own data policies, according to 79% of respondents. It is fair to suggest, therefore, that public sector leaders are broadly aligned on the benefits of the NDS and are keen to follow the best practice set out by it. The question is, are they able to?

The short answer is that a slender majority of public sector organisations require greater investment in digital infrastructure to fully implement the best practice principles laid out by the NDS. Over half (56%) of public sector leaders say their organisation’s data is currently stored on infrastructure that is not fit-for-purpose, while 47% say that they will need to spend more on technology to support digital services in the future.

This challenge is in no small part down to a dependence on legacy systems, making it difficult to collect, organise, and share data. Removing barriers to doing so requires infrastructure modernisation to transform systems and make data more accessible. Only then can users begin to access the data they need to inform decision-making in real-time – leading to a more data-driven approach to public services.

Cloud adoption enables data sharing

This drive for digital transformation has led to more public sector organisations adopting cloud infrastructure. The majority (79%) of public sector leaders say their organisations stores data in the cloud, citing benefits such as lower costs, increased data sharing capability, and support for hybrid workers. Given the need for public sector organisations to expand their capacity for data sharing, investment in cloud is set to grow in the next 12 months. According to our research, the vast majority (87%) of respondents plan to maintain or grow their cloud spend in the next 12 months.

While continued cloud acceleration is a prevalent narrative, there is also evidence that public sector strategies are maturing when it comes to cloud investments. Since 2013 when the UK government introduced its Cloud First policy, cloud computing has been at the heart of IT transformation within public sector. However, only 30% of public sector leaders claim to consciously adopt a cloud-first approach. This means that cloud-appropriate policies are a more financially and operationally prudent way to approach the delivery of digital public services. If the NDS is to truly position the UK as a pioneer in the next wave of technological innovation, public sector organisations require more support to bridge old and new worlds of legacy IT digital-first architectures.

One of the major challenges to be answered is connecting disparate data silos across both single organisations, but also the broader government services ecosystem. This can be done by creating a hybrid cloud data fabric, enabling public sector organisations to improve data mobility, meet data compliance obligations, and optimise for both performance and cost.

Digital skills underpin transformation

Enabling more advanced data sharing capabilities and the many benefits that accompany this is not just about infrastructure. Doing so also requires data-literate individuals. There is currently a desperate need for digital skills – with one in eight job opportunities residing in the digital sector. The UK government’s data skills gap report claims that as many as 234,000 data-related roles are presently unfilled.

In concurrent with this data, NetApp’s research found that in the main public sector leaders believe that their organisation must change culturally to embrace new technology. Over two thirds (69%) asserted this. Similarly, 63% believe that more employee training is required to truly make digital transformation possible. The same number said they need more support from senior management to meet digital objectives in 2022. Given the well documented shortage of both technical and digital skills, all roads lead to training as the solution to closing the gap. Almost two in three (65%) public sector leaders agree that digital upskilling is urgently needed to help their organisation achieve its digital transformation goals.

As well as implementing training and initiatives to increase IT proficiency and digital literacy among existing employees, the technology and higher education sectors must work together to produce data-savvy graduates across all disciplines. This will help organisations across all industries, beyond the public sector, respond to the challenge posed by the technical skills shortage and the increasing requirement for decision making at every level to be more data driven.

This, combined with buy-in from senior leadership, renewed investment in modernised infrastructure, and migration to the cloud will enable public sector organisations to increase the provision of digital-first public services to UK citizens.

The NDS is an essential piece of this puzzle, setting the direction towards a truly data-driven society. That journey is far from over but unleashing the power of data will give the UK public sector strategic impetus, allowing it to truly thrive in the age of accelerated digital transformation.


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