The public sector’s journey towards agile and scalable services

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Digital contact tracing, testing, vaccine rollout and passports, furlough payments, support for the unemployed, online learning: The pandemic repeatedly forced the public sector to react quickly to a tsunami of events. Public services couldn’t always cope with surges in demand, leaving the vulnerable without support. How can digital help the public sector to develop reliable new services faster, while scaling them efficiently to meet the needs of the public?

Achieving agility in a public sector context

In the private sector the pursuit of growth and competitive advantage provide clear goals and strong commercial incentives to be agile. The public sector is governed by a more complex set of imperatives: Delivering more effective services; improving experiences, outcomes, and inclusion; societal benefits, and ultimately, driving the success of public policy. This demands engagement with politicians and enterprises; with other organizations in central, regional, or local government; and with diverse citizens who might be digital natives at one end of the spectrum, or not online at the other.

We argued in a previous blog that digital trust is the heartbeat of public sector transformation: The public sector has to demonstrate that it knows enough, but not too much about us. That its services are safe and secure. And that it respects citizen sovereignty and the privacy of data.

Public sector innovation takes place within very different parameters from innovation in the private sector. This is because the public sector needs to focus on the “mission”, creating transformation plans that enable the move away from project-oriented organizations to empower mission-oriented organizations.

Complex challenges: From knowing the customer, to technical debt

In the public sector, the identity of the “customer” cannot always be taken for granted. Just as the private sector supports B2B, B2C, and B2B2C relationships, so the public sector also supports different relationships. For example, in healthcare, the technological relationship is usually government to citizen. But in education, the main interaction is with teachers, rather than students, making the relationship between government and agent.

Then there is the way in which government business cases are written, orchestrated, and measured, and how procurement is done, which does not often contribute to government’s goals of flexibility and agility. Decision making tends to reflect a “waterfall” view of projects and demand predictability. Before an election it can freeze altogether.

Many public sector organizations are also heavily siloed, working in isolation rather than in collaborative ecosystems. Often, for example, they will invest in new DevOps tools but find they cannot reap the full benefit of their investment because the organization is still siloed and project oriented.

There are also significant technological challenges. , using an eGovernment approach, it needs to modernize an IT estate that relies on monolithic systems. While the drive to digitalize government services has transformed the front office, it has not reached many of the back end, core systems. True end-to-end journeys for citizens demand that this technical debt is written down.

APIs and the power of transformation

The implementation of APIs is probably transformation the public sector can make as it strives to overcome heavy legacy technology, to become more agile. APIs are a natural fit with the cloud, sitting on the back end together. The public sector needs to move key functionality, driving an open system ecosystem of APIs, enabling services to talk to each other, and allowing them to simplify the complexity of backend transactions.

By implementing an API-driven architecture, the public sector can link up different departments to facilitate and enhance the major events in a citizen’s life, such as the birth of a child, becoming a student, taking a first job and, subsequently, taxation, healthcare, pensions, and social care. APIs orchestrate different services in an open ecosystem, stitching them together seamlessly to offer simple transactions and a wide variety of positive government interventions.

API management is intrinsically linked to the move to cloud strategy. For example, in France, we observe a movement of ministries and agencies to install public services on the “trusted cloud”. The new shared services will bring together the online activities of a complicated subsystem of government ministries and departments. Once citizens have logged into the highly secure system, they will be able to access other public services through one connection. In the EU, Estonia and Malta are most advanced in terms of digitalization and mutualization, setting an example for other governments.

The power of open standards

There is a fine balance between open standards and agility. Adopting open standards delivers clear, proven benefits and enables agility as well. Open standards allow organizations to complete a multitude of tasks and deliver positive outcomes, but the danger is fragmentation across the landscape, meaning nothing can communicate or scale.

The ideal is to have flexible, open standards that allow agility, within very clear parameters, but allow interoperability and communication between them, so that digital journeys can cut across departments, and even governments. The exchange and flow of information could, for example, identify cross border tax evasion, as people move between tax jurisdictions. This would demand flexible, far-reaching standards that complement agility to enable scale.

Building successful outcomes

Once APIs and open standards are established, the building blocks are in place to create new services faster, even when political imperatives change. The best way to achieve this is through the thoughtful fragmentation of monoliths into a loosely coupled ecosystem, where technology is the enabler.

By the end of 2020, it had assisted over 1.2 million employers and 9.9 million employees, paid out claims worth over 46.4 billion GBP and processed over 4.5 million claims from employers. This is a fine example of how APIs and open standards enable a fast response, underpinned by a strong will, appropriate investment, and modern platforms.

Meanwhile, in New Orleans, in the wake of the pandemic, the city’s information line, New Orleans 311, experienced a 350% surge in call volume. In response, the city launched an AI-powered 311 chatbot, “Jazz”, accessed via text and the city’s website, freeing staff to focus on more complex or sensitive cases.

Riding the wave of change

The speed of change, whether related to demographics, climate, or the pandemic, continues to increase rapidly. Public sector organizations must be both resilient, and adaptable, building in agility, speed and scalability for the sake of citizens and society. To achieve this, they need to create agile and open ecosystems that thrive on state-of-the-art technologies, open platforms, and open standards. This way, the public sector will communicate and empower citizens, advancing sustainable development worldwide.

For more information read TechnoVision 2021 Public Sector Edition, our annual guide to what’s new and what’s coming next in the world of technology, focused on the public sector.

AUTHORS

Thomas Quartier

Principal Lean-Agile Consultant, Public Sector

 

Sandeep Kumar

VP and Head of Business Technology, Capgemini Invent

 

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