In the public sector, financial and cultural constraints, complex procurement processes, and a long list of stakeholders are all hampering efforts to enable digital transformation, but the biggest challenge of all is overcoming technical debt. At Salesforce’s recent Week of Innovation, we saw how these impediments can be overcome, unlocking the enormous potential that AI provides, explains Bill Mew.
The Prime Minister’s recent AI summit may well have been an exercise in optimistic crystal ball gazing, focused on imagined benefits far in the future, but one area that may well benefit most from AI a great deal sooner is far closer to home.
For the UK public sector to be ready to be able to harness the potential that AI provides, it will need to overcome a number of challenges:
Challenge 1: Budget and Procurement
Public sector CIOs are envious of their private sector peers who have reasonable budgets and simpler procurement processes and also only need to satisfy customers and shareholders. In the public sector, CIOs for local and central government, health and education not only have many more stakeholders to placate, but they have also seen the ‘more for less’ matra taken to extremes.
The initial cost, risk and disruption for any digital transformation project can be prohibitive, given the financial and cultural constraints that they are working under. While an ROI horizon of five, 10, or even 15 years, might reveal a compelling business case, they are often driven by shorter term pressures.
Challenge 2: Leadership and Talent
For just over a year Megan Lee Devlin has acted as Chief Executive of the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO – part of the Cabinet Office), and been responsible for leading the government’s digital transformation as well as its Digital, Data and Technology (DDaT) function. She is currently being replaced by Mike Bracken who led government technology under the coalition government and who founded the Government Digital Service (GDS). While GDS powered the UK to the top of the UN’s e-Government rankings during his previous tenure, years of stagnation and a singular lack of progress since has seen the UK slide way down the rankings. Bracken’s return is seen as an effort to refocus with DDAT already being renamed Government Digital and Data (GDAD). But having to bring back the old guard betrays a lack of talent, with many of the changemakers from the past having been lost to the private sector, and the ranks of talented young turks being worn down by endless frustration and temptation elsewhere. A recent change of minister during the reshuffle has not helped and a pronouncement that reverses pandemic work from home policies and requires all civil servants to return to designated offices at least three days a week is likely to make skills retention even harder.
Challenge 3: Technical Debt
Technical debt is the cumulative cost of technical compromises that are made over time as well as a patchwork of short-term fixes, poorly designed software packages or ageing hardware that become increasingly difficult to maintain. It reduces productivity, impacts customer experience, and inhibits an organisation’s ability to innovate. Unfortunately the longer that you put off modernisation, the more temporary fixes and additions you need, further amplifying technical debt.
Software lock-in in particular can stifle creativity, forcing services at best “to be designed around legislation” and at worst “to be constrained by archaic software provision”.
Challenge 4: Data Disarray
One consequence of technical debt is disarray in data architecture with incompatible or inaccessible data sets. While tools like Chat GPT have been criticised for hallucinating, giving many people reservations about its accuracy, in many cases the quality of public sector data is already poor, meaning that considerable data cleansing is required even before AI can be applied.
CIO’s need to adopt a consistent data architecture, improve overall data quality and consider where their data persists. In considering which workloads to move to the cloud and in which order, many have already transitioned the easy stuff and are stuck with the most challenging legacy data set and workloads.
Unfortunately a great deal of supposed public sector digital transformation has been more ‘digital’ than real ‘transformation’. Workloads have either been lifted and shifted without any reengineering or processes have been simply given at best a web interface to allow for a level of self service and at worst forms or PDFs that are available as digital versions of archaic unreformed processes.
Salesforce offers hope
At its recent Innovation Week, Salesforce provided real examples that showed how overcoming these hurdles is possible. It has tools that help organisations correlate and cleanse data sets as they are migrated to a secure cloud destination. Once in the cloud, Salesforce’s array of robust applications (often the public sector’s achilles heel) not only provide functionality and interoperability, but remove the headache of having to develop and deploy updates and security patches, while also opening the door to the latest innovations, such as AI.
Not only is Salesforce able to drive massive improvements in decision making and customer service with pre-built apps that are powered by AI, but it is also supported by a large ecosystem of partners and skilled professionals.
Examples from an array of public sector organisations from the Student Loans Company and Network Rail to the NHS was followed by a presentation on policing.
Salesforce has helped Hampshire Constabulary and Thames Valley Police address an unprecedented increase in demand with emergency ‘999’ call handling, by using AI to enable them to better understand the problem inherent in each call.
Recognising that “bad processes made digital are still bad” they chose not to simply provide a digital interface for their existing systems, but instead used Salesforce to transform their processes, and then use AI to help call handlers to rapidly understand, classify and resolve calls while also providing citizens with a self service portal to enable them to access support via their channel of choice. This allows citizens to obtain updates on incidents with ease, freeing call handlers to resolve further requests for support.
Given the number of challenges faced by most public sector CIOs, realising the potential of AI is not going to be at all straightforward, but it is hoped that new leadership with the CDDO along with renewed focus on digital transformation and legacy exit as well as the support of innovators like Salesforce, will enable us to deliver on its promise. Who knows – we may even return the UK to the top of the e-Government rankings.