How the public sector can meet the needs of today's citizens though agile digital services

clock • 6 min read

Bas Lemmens, VP Sales & GM EMEA, VMware Tanzu, shares his tips for digital services success in the public sector.

The UK is ranked as one of the top countries in the UN's latest E-Government Survey, a report measuring how governments around the world are using information technologies to build sustainable and resilient societies. Yet with the public sector comprising a vast range of departments with varying social imperatives and priorities, there is no single route to successful digital transformation. Consequently, digital transformation initiatives in the public sector have produced mixed results. 

NHS Digital has created a tangible impact through its digital transformation initiatives over the past year. Starting with a commitment to moving IT services toward cloud-first data centres in March, NHS Digital gained the speed and agility needed to continuously deliver new and updated digital services for staff, patients, and the social care sector itself. Since then, the organisation has released a number of innovative digital products and services, including biometric login capabilities for NHS apps and specialist technology solutions to improve access to services for people with hearing and sight loss. 

This success story, however, is difficult to replicate in other areas. The Ministry of Defence (MoD), for example, announced a £30m boost to fast-track agile software development technology within days of NHS Digital's move to the cloud. Reaping the benefits of its new digital capabilities, on the other hand, has not been as rapid as the UK's healthcare sector, with the technology only expected to be in operation by the end of the year.

It's clear that the disparity in the levels of progress and success seen in the public sector is not a technology problem, but a matter of approach. Many public sector organisations simply aren't moving fast enough to bring in the innovation partners they need as quickly as they should be. Worse still, these issues are also having an impact on the public sector's access to industry talent, as sluggish innovation cycles and comparatively non-competitive salaries for developers translate into digital talent being driven away from the public and into the private sectors. Not only that, but a poorly managed transition to a new, digital-first organisational model can alienate an organisation's existing workforce, and cause individuals to rethink their career path.

With the potential for widespread social impact, it's true that the public sector is under more pressure than most to look before it leaps. But speed is not the same thing as agility, and too often, failure has been the result of trying to do everything in one go. When it comes to software development, organisations can rely on the proven success of agile methodologies, one of the most important being a ‘daily mindset' for production. Focusing on well planned, small iterations delivered by highly collaborative, cross-functional teams. the public sector can reach a point where exceptional digital services become the norm.

Here we look at some of the core ways in which public sector organisations can use agile methodologies to realise digital transformation projects with higher rates of success and greater societal impacts.

 Providing a better experience when interacting with government services

There are more user touch points in the public sector than any other industry. With more and more emphasis placed on end-user experiences, public sector organisations must ensure all these interactions are up to scratch: are digital services quick and easy to use? Can new features be added without downtime? Do agents have access to the relevant event data to contextualise individual user enquiries? For public sector organisations to constantly be able to answer "yes" to these questions, they need to observe key performance metrics on an ongoing basis.

It is unlikely that any tool developed without user-centric design will meet the needs of its user base. But when the user base comprises everyone in the country, meeting the unique needs of each and every user may seem daunting.

It is here that diversity in product development teams (or anyone who contributes to a digital or physical designed experience for people) is crucial. By making these teams representative of the intended customer base, public sector organisations are more likely to understand the unique needs of different demographics, whether products account for these needs, or even potentially exclude certain groups

Enabling public sector organisations to make a more immediate impact

Apps have quickly taken over as the best way to deliver products and services to end-users in a simple way. In the public sector, where products and services are key to making people's lives better, these apps must be finely tuned to the unique needs of the user. Personalisation is imperative to this experience, and public sector organisations can enhance the impact of their apps by incorporating end-user insights at every stage of the software development cycle. This ensures a wide variety of experiences and opinions are brought to the table, with user feedback leading future development.

Improving trust between citizens and state

It is vital that citizens feel they can trust in the public sector to continue meeting their needs. A powerful driving force behind trust is the belief in the public sector's ability to continuously deliver value to citizens and negate potential sources of disruption. Crucially, public sector organisations must complement investment in new technologies by embracing lean, user-centred, agile practices and principles in order to achieve success. There are many examples in the public sector of this, but there is still a long way to go. For example, even the most forward-thinking organisations are only just starting to address the continuous delivery of software and therefore fail to realise the potential value of technology investment. The public sector must take a leaf out of the private sector's book and realise the link between end-user experience and trust in an organisation's ability to get them what they need. Understanding the best route to production is key to this, ensuring transformation efforts are more sustainable over time, as well as meeting and exceeding multiple levels of compliance across different standards.

Building secure systems by default

Mitigating security threats to the potentially sensitive data stored in public sector systems is a top priority. Public sector organisations must ensure that security is intrinsic to the design and operation of their IT, built around the three ‘R's of security: repair vulnerable software as soon as updates are available; repave servers and applications daily from a known good state; and rotate user credentials frequently.

As apps, and the experiences they deliver, move to the forefront of society's needs, good government software will be more important than ever. We need to spend less time juggling compliance requirements and navigating internal silos, and more time on building software that delivers real outcomes for citizens. How software is developed and behaves in line with this is central to success, as is being open to new ways of working and decision-making to pre-empt issues in the future.

Build applications with velocity, run open source Kubernetes with consistency, and manage your entire footprint with confidence, with VMware Tanzu.

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