In 2020, civil servants went to extraordinary lengths to deliver the public services the country vitally needed. In recognition of this, the Civil Service Awards celebrate a wealth of inspirational individuals and innovative projects within the civil service and this year, I was lucky enough to judge entries for the Best Use of Data and Technology Award.
The entries included many inspirational projects that reveal the challenges facing the civil service, as well as key trends for the technology industry and provide opportunities for us to learn from them.
Challenges facing the civil service
The impact of COVID-19 on the civil service and public sector was profound in changing the role of data and cloud services in the day-to-day running of the UK public services and the critical decision-making that affected millions of citizens. After years of agonising over what was possible from a technical perspective and how the public would respond to it, the pandemic forced these organisations to embrace data-sharing, almost overnight.
But the challenge is that while many have changed mindset and behaviour, there’s more work to be done in their technology journey. Whether that’s a better understanding of where data resides, or the need to gain the right permissions or to break down silos – the reality is that many departments and organisations are limited in their ability to embrace the new possibilities that data can bring. Quite often this is because much of the infrastructure that data sits on is legacy technology.
However, the fact that we saw almost 200 award entries from the civil service in the Best User of Data and Technology Award category highlights the dedication of our civil servants to working to use data and technology to truly change lives. There is a huge opportunity if the wider civil service and public sector can keep up the momentum.
Top three takeaways
While there are several learnings I could rattle through, I am keen to highlight three key takeaways that stood out for me this year.
- Firstly, the individual endeavour behind each award entry was astounding. Unsurprisingly most of the awards were related to the pandemic in some way. But the impressive takeaway was the number of individuals who collected COVID-19 data for apps and other technologies, as there simply wasn’t a central database. These individuals played a pivotal role in getting us through the crisis and will be key to helping us recover in the mid-long term.
- The second key trend was the value the government put on consolidating data into single repositories. Across the civil service, there are hundreds of databases, and there were multiple submissions where individuals brought different data sets together to drive better outcomes. Impressively, much of this was done in personal time, again highlighting the many individuals willing to go the extra mile during the pandemic. While I can’t go into specific examples, it has been insightful to see how technology and data has helped departments improve productivity, drive better public services and of course, deliver huge cost savings. The role of data has never been more important.
- Finally, the security around data plays a key role in the civil service. Many of the entries were focused on not only how to share data, but also how to keep it secure and privacy protected. In today’s modern world, given how much data is generated and collected every day, it’s vital that departments get this right from the offset. Otherwise, they risk reputational damage as well as losing trust from citizens in their ability to keep their data safe.
What this means for the tech industry
All the ideas that came through in the entries highlight how to make better use data in government. No Freedom of Information request could have sourced as much insight into the sector. As such, this is an extraordinary opportunity to learn about how to work with the civil service to ensure we have better conversations and truly understand how departments want to use data.
Our learning is that we need to talk to the government about its desired outcomes, looking at where their data resides, the value of bringing it together and how to manage it to deliver a better public sector, not about a specific type of technology available. We need to improve the language we use to understand concerns and work out how to improve efficiencies, no matter what cloud or on-premise solution a department may be using. Working with the right technology partner, the civil service can consolidate and gain huge visibility into their departments and citizens.
The civil service and public sector in a post-pandemic world
It’s well documented that the pandemic accelerated the modernisation of the public sector by five years in the space of 18 months, cutting red tape, removing procurement processes and moving the sector forward by acting on the advice of external parties.
The key now is to maintain this, but many departments and organisations are anxious. They want to keep up the pace, but was all the right due diligence followed in the rush to modernise? For example, with cybersecurity or compliance. The civil service and public sector must continue to work with the technology industry to ensure processes and technology have been set up properly, for now and in the future.
We’ll continue to see the growth of hybrid and flexible working. As part of this, there will continue to be discussions about the government’s decentralisation programme. The pandemic showed that the government and its departments were able to work remotely, so there is now no need to create new hubs across the country. There just needs to continue to be flexible ways of working. It’ll be interesting to see how this narrative develops in the coming months.