What Can Large Businesses Learn From The Public Sector?

Large organisations face very similar challenges, no matter what their business model

Think of a large organisation, and corporates often spring to mind. In the UK, however, public sector organisations rival their private counterparts in size and in the scope of their work. The NHS, for example, is famously the biggest employer in the UK, and has the fifth largest workforce in the world…

When it comes to revitalising an organisation for the digital age, emphasis is usually placed on the efforts of private sector businesses. But public institutions – traditionally perceived as sprawling, inefficient, and stuck in the past – also have to change and adapt. In fact, their large workforces, organisational structures, and legacy systems provide challenges that map directly on to those faced by incumbent businesses in the private sector.

With these similarities in mind, there are clearly important cross-sector conversations to be had. It may often be overlooked, but we’ve got to ask the question: what can large businesses learn from the public sector?

A relic of the past

One person ideally placed to comment on the private-public discussion is Matt Jukes, co-CEO of Notbinary, a technology services company that aims to support institutions in making the most of the internet era. With a background in the Civil Service, Jukes has extensive experience in digital transformation in the public sector, and all the frustrations that entailed…

“The big issue was that most government digital or IT space was in the hands of a small amount of big systems integrators that all had huge, long term contracts, and actually weren’t incentivised to make change,” he says. “There’s stories about laptops taking 15 minutes to boot up in the morning, you couldn’t upgrade browsers, generally everything was locked in an earlier time frame. The rest of the world had moved on, and because of that big parts of the public sector didn’t even know what good looked like. They couldn’t actually see it. The world was changing but it wasn’t happening for them.”

In 2011, however, things changed dramatically with the formation of Government Digital Service, which broke up the power of the traditional systems integrators, moved contracts to much shorter time frames, and put a heavier focus on user needs and modern technologies. With a vision of modernisation coupled with the spending controls to back this up, real progress began to be made.

Don’t want to talk about my bad reputation

This action notwithstanding, the public sector still retains a bad reputation for cumbersome processes and poor customer service. As Vimla Appadoo, Lead Service Designer at DigitalBridge, who previously worked at the Department for Work and Pensions and in public sector transformation, states:

“The general consensus around public services is that they are untrustworthy and unreliable. That’s based on how long it takes to get things done but also the lack of a seamless experience for people. It might be having to bounce around lots of different services just to get one outcome, or having to repeat a story constantly throughout a single journey.”

For Appadoo, the real challenges in the public sector lie in understanding how to serve true local community needs, and then taking those learnings and scaling them up to the levels required. This is no easy feat for anyone in business, but in the public sector there is an added dimension to contend with.

“The thing that’s different with the public sector,” says Jukes, “is every time there’s a big IT disaster or some other problem it is going to be newsworthy. There’ll be some sort of parliamentary investigation, it’s public money that’s being wasted, and it’s going to end up in the news. Whereas if that happens at a bank, for example, unless you can’t actually get your money out at an ATM or you can’t pay for something at a shop, no one knows.”

“So actually the perception still remains that the public sector is making a mess of things. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still consistently really stupid decisions that get made, but actually there’s enormous amounts of really good practice that people in the know are aware of.”

“If you look at really high profile startups like Monzo, for example, an incredibly high percentage of their staff were working for the Government Digital Service or the Civil Service a few months ago. That’s where people are learning modern skills, making things happen, and doing it at scale.”

“People in the startup world and in digital now have a very different perception of the public sector. But it is the nature of working there that if you do mess things up it is going to be a bigger story.”

Starting the conversation

One of the biggest issues with digital transformation in the public sector is the need to keep services running as they are updated. This, of course, is not unique to public institutions, but if NHS services were to fail, for example, it would be far more serious than problems with most commercial applications…

To avoid large scale service failures, the public sector has to approach digital transformation in a very cautious way. This is in direct contrast to the recent efforts of companies such as TSB, which in April 2018 underwent a disastrous IT migration which saw millions of its customers locked out of their accounts, and cost the business a cool £330m.

For Jukes, such poor approaches to digital transformation in the private sector are a mandate for the public sector to showcase its talents.

“With TSB and then the recent lawsuit between Accenture and Hertz cars, every bad approach around digital transformation you could think of had been implemented,” he says. “I just thought – actually, they’ve done everything we would not allow to happen in any part of government digital transformation any more.”

“It’s time we started to point out that we are a centre of excellence on some of these specific problems.”

Exchanging ideas

This led Jukes and his team to create the Exchange track at this year’s Disruption Summit Europe, which will take place on 10th September at 133 Houndsditch, London.

The main driving force behind the presentations and panel sessions on the day are the valuable insights that private sector businesses can glean from the public sector.

“A lot of the lessons that government have learned in the past few years were quite hard earned,” says Jukes. “They were big, high profile lessons about security, about legacy, about user research, and about governance – all big issues that everyone faces, no matter what sector.”

“I wanted to make sure that we spotlighted all that with a different audience. In the public sector we are very good at talking to each other about it, in the government bubble, but we haven’t done a great job of spreading that out.”

Disruption Summit Europe

Sessions in the Exchange track at the Summit will feature speakers from a variety of fields, from government departments, universities and public bodies. With the confirmed agenda for the day now available, Jukes gives a flavour of what attendees have in store.

“We’re starting with a panel on how government has embraced putting users at the centre of design and operations,” says Jukes. “We’ve got representatives from the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Education and the NHS, and it’s very much about the shift from building services that were very influenced by internal needs – and often ministers’ whims – to doing the hard yards to find out what works for users.”

“We’ve got Sam Hall from the Office of National Statistics, who is running the digital side of the next census, which is going to be the biggest digital project in government that year. It’s an enormous, billion pound project, which touches every adult life in the country. If you’re talking about taking legacy systems and trying to scale them up and deliver something to a large audience, it’s a really rare opportunity to hear from someone who is doing that…”

“There’s also going to be a session on user automation tools from Jodie Trumper of University College London. This is how automation and RPA are tools that can free up time for employees to do more interesting stuff elsewhere. She’ll explore what that actually looks like and how it doesn’t really affect jobs other than to make people’s lives better.”

“The closing session is going to be from Nick Walkley, the Chief Executive of Homes England, who have just gone through this massive, year long digital transformation in every aspect of the organisation. So changing their business model to be much more digitally savvy, updating their technology, bringing service design into their core business, rebooting the organisation for the 21st century. They have made a huge leap in a short period of time, so it’s a great case study.”

In her talk, Putting People At The Heart, Vimla Appadoo will explore how organisations that deliver services must put the needs of their users in the centre of what they do.

“It’s understanding that the users really own the problems,” she says. “People who are experiencing difficulties or frustrations are actually an opportunity for organisations to take those pain points and turn them into something positive. I’ve seen this happen across local authorities particularly, when they pursue culture change and a shift in mindset. This then trickles through to the way that services are delivered.”

With so many challenges and experiences in common, there is clearly a considerable amount that private sector businesses can learn from the public sector. We’re starting the conversation with the Exchange track at Disruption Summit Europe 2019. Will we see you there?

Secure your place at this year’s Disruption Summit Europe here.

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