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2017 must be the year of digital confidence for UK public sector success

2016 was a year of unprecedented change for both enterprise and public sector organisations; one with more twists and turns than many of us could have imagined. From the EU referendum result and uncertainty around Brexit to a commodities price slump and a new prime minister, as we look ahead it’s difficult to predict what we might see in the next twelve months. So we have to learn, improve and essentially make sure we’re in the best position we can be for whatever comes our way in 2017.

Still having not been able to set my hands on a crystal ball, I turned to the next best thing – our customers. At O2 we recently asked leaders and managers within public sector organisations about their aspirations, hopes and concerns for 2017.

Our Business Barometer survey makes it clear that many will continue to grapple with a number of complex and varied challenges. Against the backdrop of Brexit, employee retention and economic uncertainty top their list of worries for the year ahead. Eight in ten public sector leaders told us they will continue to focus on employee productivity and driving operational efficiencies in 2017 as they look to navigate another year of squeezed budgets.

Almost all of the leaders we spoke to said delivering a better customer service is a key performance driver for 2017. Three quarters of public sector leaders told us they will focus on delivering more personalised services in the coming months as they look to improve the way they interact and serve their customers.

This focus on customer needs and expectations is rightly placed and I expect it to be more important to the public sector in 2017 than ever before and I’ll explain why.

2017 will be mobile

In today’s digital society, four in every five adults in the UK own a smartphone and about three quarters of them access the internet on their phones on the move[1]. With this comes a heightened expectation of the brands and organisations who serve them: people want a seamless experience and service, or even new services thought to be impossible only a few years ago. In 2016, Deliveroo became the posterchild of the latest digital disruption to capitalise on people’s appetite for on demand and personalised service.

This consumer craving for always-on connectivity and service has huge implications for the public sector.

We’ve already started to see digital driving service innovation. Take the way records are being digitised in healthcare so patients can have a more joined-up experience. And we’ve seen local governments use digital to enhance their delivery of welfare services. We worked with Halton Housing Trust to enable citizens to connect with the Trust’s services at any time and from anywhere. With more customers accessing services online, the organisation has seen a more than 40% reduction in incoming calls, meaning improved business efficiencies and productivity. The opportunity is huge and we’re only scratching the surface.

Almost all of the public sector leaders we spoke to expect their customers will want to access more of their products or services online or via mobile devices next year. They also expect more of their customers will choose to interact with them through digital means in 2017.

The opportunity to harness digital to deliver better service to customers is clear. But in order to make the most of this opportunity we have to tackle the lack of digital confidence.

Despite a large number of the public sector organisations acknowledging the benefits of digital to improve service and performance, almost half admit they have still not integrated digital into their strategy. According to our research, this is due in part to a lack of digital skills and confidence. Almost a quarter of public sector leaders told us that technology could help deliver commercial gains, but that their organisation lacks the necessary expertise. A further quarter admitted that a lack of digital confidence and skills amongst employees is a key barrier to making full use of the potential benefits of mobile and digital technology.

2017 must be the year when the public sector makes strides towards improving its digital skills to be able to maximise the benefits of digital technology, drive efficiencies and improve service quality – if not, there’s a risk that they could fall even further behind their private sector counterparts. So what needs to happen?

First, there is a need to attract the people with the right skills into the public sector. That means making careers in the sector appealing and aspirational for our young people, our digital natives. Having digital skills isn’t just about being computer literate, it’s about being able to use those skills creatively for the benefit of the organisation, it’s about having an open mind-set to adapt and evolve processes in alignment with new technologies. Having grown up in a world of internet and smartphones, young people have inherent digital so offering apprenticeships and internships are a great way to give this generation an opportunity to showcase their skills and introduce them to the opportunities available within the public sector.

However, it’s not enough to only look to the next generation. We have to upskill existing employees too, so they have the experience and digital confidence that can add real value to the organisation. Last year, a group of O2 graduates ran a session with ExComm (O2’s Executive Committee), where they taught them all about what it means to be a ‘digital native’. That included introducing members of the O2 board to a variety of different apps, explaining how and why people use them, and setting the board members challenges in a short space of time to show them how easy the apps are to navigate.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly we need to see increased collaboration and knowledge-sharing between the public and private sector. At O2, we are customer-led. It means everything we do as a business is rooted in delivering the best for our customers and our customers’ customers. We now have 25 million customers and the highest customer service satisfaction and loyalty scores in our industry. We’re always striving to do better and share our learnings with others so they can benefit too. To give you an example, we partnered with St Helens Council to help them better harness digital to improve the way they interact and serve their citizens. By installing free wifi hotspots, delivering digital skills surgeries for employees and creating new apps, we were able to increase positive engagements and efficiencies.

2017 will no doubt throw new surprises our way. But we can all be certain of the increasing importance of digital to deliver benefits to people and businesses. It’s in our power to make the most of that opportunity next year to deliver economic prosperity and benefits to communities everywhere. But to do it 2017 must be the year when the public sector makes strides towards building its digital confidence.

[1] Ofcom, The Communications Market Report  2016

Billy D’Arcy is managing director of enterprise and public sector, O2