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Lessons for digital transformation - It's all about mastering the basic

Our latest annual survey shows that digital self-service continues to evolve, albeit slowly. But there are signs of hope as the public sector adapts to a constantly changing digital world.

Shaun Jennings, 2 January 2020 14:42
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We've been running our Digital Self-Service in the Public Sector survey for five years now, and we're pleased to say digital transformation is still high on public sector organisations' agendas, and ambitions are high.

And while progress is slower than expected, there are signs that organisations are a lot better equipped at understanding customers' needs, and as we'll explore in greater depth in the report, many have nailed the basics that make systems fit for customer use. Some are even going as far as experimenting with new technologies such as chatbots and AI.

But here's the problem: ambitions appear to still be riding high despite core online services and self-service functionality lagging behind where most people expected them to be by 2019.

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Simply, there's still a lot of work to be done before many organisations can claim digital transformation success.


Digital transformation still has barriers to overcome

Since last year's report, the proportion of respondents who are happy with their digital self-service strategy has dropped from 44% to 37%. What's more, almost a third of survey respondents still don't have a strategy in place.

While you could argue that the pace of change could have quickly dated strategies that were conceived five years ago, it's also possible that many weren't fit-for-purpose in the first place. 

So it's unsurprising to discover that more than half say there are key barriers preventing them from widening service availability - with just 18% believing their organisation fully embraces digital service delivery.

But what's preventing ambitious organisations from achieving their digital transformation goals? Let's find out.


Legacy systems need to be migrated

Due to their complicated maintenance needs - coupled with a chronic shortage of available skills to manage them - legacy systems continue to restrict digital transformation across the public sector. And without a proper digital strategy in place, many organisations find it difficult to migrate to the latest systems.

As we mentioned earlier, while customers' digital service demands evolve with increasing velocity, many also find that their strategies are struggling to keep pace with this change.

Couple these issues with what the Harvard Business Review sees as the apparent high short-term cost of delivering transformation - such as the waste created by failing to achieve goals - and it's easy to see why transformation is stalling. And often, there's almost a "make do" attitude to delivering new services.

But to create a digital sea-change across the public sector, who's going to lead the charge?


Whose responsibility is it anyway?

Having a clear idea over who owns your digital transformation strategy is critical to delivering the services that customers need and want.

But there's been a recent shift where 82% of people we surveyed now assume that digital transformation is a "production" activity, and therefore, a responsibility of the IT department.

All departments - not least IT - have borne more than their fair share of the brunt of significant cuts over the past few years though, losing valuable skills in the process. This has perhaps driven the rise in low/no-code development platforms - where lower-skilled employees can perform similar functions to experienced developers.

The truth is though, legacy technology still abounds in the public sector, which requires specialist skills that are often hard to come by. If digital transformation is to improve, it needs significant investment - not just in skills, but in budget, too.

This is the cost versus skills paradox.


Set more realistic goals

Despite setting lofty three-year ambitions in our 2016 report, many organisations have failed to deliver on their goals. But this hasn't put them off setting equally high ambitions for the next three years to 2022.

For example, in 2016 more than half of respondents said that between 50-99% of services would be available online or through self-service mechanisms by 2019. Three years on, just 9% believe they've achieved this goal.

While many are confident they can deliver online services and digital self-serve mechanisms, few have absolute confidence that they'll achieve these goals. This suggests that, while the ambition is there, the right processes and cultures aren't in place to make it a reality.


Walk before you run

What's encouraging is that many organisations now have a good idea of who their customers are and what they want to achieve using digital services. Indeed, more than half of participants recognise that improving customer services is the most important factor driving their digital transformation efforts - an increase of almost 40% since last year.

It's here where some of the best progress is being made. Because while 14% fewer participants believe a detailed customer understanding is key to digital transformation, this figure suggests that many now have the right customer insight in place to deliver effective, end-to-end business services that get results.

But as public sector organisations become increasingly confident, more than a third are looking to new technologies such as chatbots and artificial intelligence (AI) to help them deliver more sophisticated services.

And rather than having a real understanding of what benefits these technologies can bring, they're chasing a trend-based approach to service delivery. Some even believe that emerging tech will somehow solve their online challenges - despite more than half stating that their websites and citizen-facing portals still need improvement. 

Without the right underlying operating model in place, there is a real risk that many are trying to run before they can walk - which can create significant gaps in basic online service delivery.

New technology does have the potential to drive greater efficiency and cost-savings. But the truth is, many don't know what to do with it, and should instead focus on getting the fundamentals right.


Understand your starting point

There's no doubt that digital self-service and transformation can create significant cost savings. Indeed, 41% of survey respondents believe that they can save up to £250,000 through self-service mechanisms.

This is fantastic news, but when it comes to demonstrating real return on investment (ROI), few can - or are inclined to - reveal tangible results. That could be partly because it's difficult to measure cost savings if you don't know where you started from in the first place.

What's more, these calculations are rarely binary, and will involve a myriad of cost factors. And when 38% believe these savings will take longer than 12 months to achieve, the true business benefits won't always be immediate. 


Get the complete picture

Nobody said building end-to-end digital services that actually work would be easy. But when armed with the right strategy, people, processes, and culture, you stand a much better chance of delivering well-considered digital transformation.

We've compiled all our survey results into a full report containing in-depth analysis and expert recommendations for developing a realistic digital transformation strategy that will get results.

Last modified: 26 February 2024 12:14