Adrian Keward, Chief technologist, UK Public Sector, Red Hat, explores how automation can help streamline operations and reduce costs in the public sector
Just three years ago, Gartner found that up to 85% of businesses’ IT budget was being spent on just “keeping the lights on”. Now, as the pandemic has thrown up new challenges and squeezed capacity levels and resources, IT automation offers a way for both private sector and public sector organisations to streamline their operations.
Government IT systems have long been heavily reliant on decades-old legacy technology, which requires considerable time and resource to operate and maintain. Since lockdown, many government departments have been forced to operate shift-based resourcing (alternating which teams are in the office), which has meant that departments, IT teams especially, have struggled to carry out their tasks as normal.
A step towards alleviating pressure on stretched IT teams is to consider how to streamline operational processes. According to recent Dods Research, operational efficiency (90%) and simplification (78%) make up two of the top three digital goals for government organisations over the next five years.
So, what should public sector IT leaders consider when making the transition to automated processes?
Automating maintenance makes time for innovation
As time and human resource is at a premium, it is important to identify which tasks are regular, standard system maintenance processes, and which tasks require a more creative, human approach. In many cases, non-urgent projects and innovations have been placed on hold as resources have been diverted to carry out essential maintenance.
Knowing which tasks are more time-consuming, repetitive and manual will enable IT leaders to focus on finding the right automation solution for these. This will free up time to dedicate to working on new capabilities and innovations.
Focusing on long-term cost savings
IT automation was once considered as a ‘nice to have’ to complement ongoing internal operations if you could afford it. Many decision-makers have regarded it as too expensive for government budgets, without considering the cost savings in the long-term.
Looking longer-term, especially in the context of current pandemic pressures, automation is increasingly being regarded as a must-have and a key component for an efficient and effective IT strategy. Indeed, when accounting for lengthy manual work and staff resource allocation, automation solutions can present considerable cost savings.
For example, departments have tended to operate discrete platforms, with applications strictly locked to either Windows or Linux, rarely both together – and this could prove costly as well as restrictive. The demands of managing an MS SQL server and an SAP database could mean twice as much manpower is needed. Automation ensures platforms can all be managed as a single entity. The management time saved through making platforms consistent in this way often converts to significant cost savings.
Managing drift and inconsistencies
The speed of technological advancement means that legacy technology can be a severe disadvantage, particularly as it encounters problems with drift. As applications encounter inconsistencies across different servers and networks, they can begin to look and perform differently from when they were originally installed. Over time, this can lead to irregular versions and footprints, creating huge inefficiencies. Automation solutions can help to bridge the gap between discrepancies and inconsistent applications.
As with unifying varied platforms, automating systems to maintain legacy hardware can save teams time by ensuring repetitive tasks or standard updates, like regular patching, can be carried out automatically. It also increases security standards and practices, as modules and roles can be coordinated across servers. The British Army is one example of a government department that has embraced automation in this way, cutting the time to deploy critical patches from three days to three hours. Now it is able to channel vital time and resources into innovating and driving forward new capabilities because its small IT team is not overwhelmed with system management demands.
Getting started with implementation
When looking to implement an automation strategy, it is important to take things one step at a time, particularly when working across a large scale organisation. In the first instance, assess the department or organisation’s IT strategy, and identify which areas are in most need of automation solutions.
Splitting up a large process into smaller, more manageable jobs will make implementing automation solutions easier. Focus on the tasks that will be most simple to automate – this will help to create a robust foundation, develop employee experience with automation solutions and build confidence among the team. With time will come greater standardisation across processes and infrastructure, allowing teams to scale and adapt more effectively.
Many government technology leaders have already started taking these initial steps. 65% of those surveyed by Dods Research are either currently implementing, or plan to implement Intelligent Document Processing (IDP) as part of their shift to automated systems.
With a solid IT foundation at their core, organisations can apply automation not only to backend processes but for multiple use-cases, from financial tasks and application administration to agricultural innovations and geospatial products.
Pave the way for potential
Government departments are always in need of more resources, with regards to both budget allocation and manpower. Especially in the wake of the disruption brought by Covid-19, intelligent and automated processes are going to be vital to enable teams to efficiently carry out all tasks in a timely manner.
Of course, planning and budgeting for regular maintenance is essential. But with IT automation technologies, the public sector will be able to stretch well above and beyond the basic maintenance of standard operations. Automation can no longer be considered a ‘nice to have’, as the efficiencies, consistencies and streamlining it enables, while reducing costs, open up a whole world of potential innovation.