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Microsoft research questions public sector readiness over digitalisation

Digital business is a reality but the public sector isn’t ready for it. That’s the fear expressed in a Microsoft/YouGov report called “”Digital Transformation: the age of innocence, inertia or innovation?” published this week. Only a third of public sector bodies have formal training in digital technology, it seems, and although some are experimenting with virtual and augmented reality, the overall impression is that public sector organisations are lagging far behind their private counterparts when it comes to the digital world. That said, only nine per cent see this as a problem.

51 per cent of the 1000+ respondents in the UK said they anticipated technology disrupting their organisation somehow over the next few years. Arguably this is the more worrying statistic; only 51 per cent recognise this is happening?

Digital does not just mean gadgets

Taking a few steps back, it’s worth looking at the impact of the outsourcing world on the public sector over the last 20 years or so. There have been some high profile disasters, it would be absurd to claim otherwise. However, there have also been successes; this week the Home Office quietly extended a contract with Fujitsu by a year. That contract was originally signed in 2000. It can be gathered that the Home Office is pretty happy with the service.

Other instances have gone less well and the Public Accounts Committee has had plenty to say about it. Departments have been criticised for poor oversight of contracts, for not working in true partnership with their suppliers and for overspending. This is before the politicised arguments about whether a piece of outsourcing constitutes privatisation or not.

Other instances are available internationally. Diagnosis by video has been commonplace in remote regions of India for a long time now as the sheer size of the territory dictates it. It is not possible to fly a doctor in for a 20 minute consultation when the only added benefit is to touch the patient.

Digital robots

The next stage on a large scale is likely to be robotic process automation (RPA) in which a software “robot” takes over a tedious and repetitive task. It already happens in routing calls to the right person (the instruction to “please press 1 to speak to an operator” has in some cases been replaced by natural language, but it’s all automated). Many ousourcing businesses are starting to take this technology on already, and are investigating its next generation, artificial intelligence (AI).

Partnerships with the companies exploring these technologies are already in place in many public sector bodies. This isn’t about the future. This is about what is happening right now.

Not the future

The Microsoft report is therefore right to highlight the lack of formal training in digital technology as a concern. The handful of respondents who confirmed their organisation would be disrupted by it were correct in their belief.

Where they may be going wrong is in their assumption that it’s not happening right now, in their public sector body or at its partner companies, or that if they experiment with a VR helmet they’ve even begun to understand the impact of digital on this and every other sector.