The growth of digital in the public sector

For public sector organisations today, digital channels are more important than ever. Not only do they offer the potential for significant cost savings and efficiencies, but as more and more ‘digital natives’ come of age and start to interact with public information and services, there is an increasing expectation that these will be made available in a digital format as standard. Facilitating effective scalability must therefore be key when embarking on any development work, to ensure that systems can grow along with user demand and organisational ambition.

However, achieving this scalability can prove challenging. While there is an increasing tendency for public sector organisations to come together to work on shared, larger-scale initiatives (seen for example in government programmes such as Hwb, or the SOCITM community), in many cases procurement is still managed on a project-by-project basis, through portals such as the Digital Marketplace.

Often focused on bringing in digital experts on limited contracts to complete specific projects, this approach can play an important role in helping clear backlogs and meet tight deadlines – but these benefits may come at the cost of long-term scalability. Once the initial solution has been delivered it’s likely that those responsible will not remain available to support on-going maintenance and enhancements, and that any domain knowledge that has been built up will be taken away with them.

Supporting scalability through agility

Compare this, then, to an alternative model based on more strategic partnerships with suppliers, which encourages the sharing of knowledge, skills and best practice in both directions. Here, suppliers are empowered to act as a valuable extension of the team while applying their own specialised expertise, to deliver maximum value over a long period of time.

Of course, a successful partnership such as this is unlikely to happen by chance or take effect immediately, so it’s important to look inwards at how your own culture can be optimised to support the interaction and engagement needed for a strong, constructive relationship. Introducing Agile techniques can prove highly beneficial here – especially Agile’s focus on communication and collaboration that helps break down operational silos, to enable disparate teams to work together.

This can be applied both at an organisational level and across the pan-sector programmes mentioned earlier – and with everybody working in the same way to achieve the same goal, your systems and strategies are much more likely to grow in a way that’s valuable, productive and sustainable. (Indeed, in our experience of working with public sector organisations we’ve seen demand for suppliers familiar with Agile methodologies grow, alongside requests for Agile training to embed the approach fully within an organisation.)

Attracting users

Agile also ensures that development outputs are continually tested and validated, ideally with real-world users. This can prove incredibly valuable to public sector organisations, especially when faced with an audience that’s increasingly digitally-savvy (as mentioned in the introduction to this article), and is also becoming used to the exceptional experiences being delivered by digital leaders from across the private sector.

For example, digital channels have freed people from the traditional 9-5 routine – enabling them to undertake activities such as shopping, banking and working whenever and wherever they wish to – and the public sector must make its services similarly available in order to respond effectively to this shift. Additionally, the measurable nature of digital should be leveraged to increase user satisfaction and organisational effectiveness alike – providing progress tracking for processes such as completing a tax return or applying for a driving licence, for example, and highlighting common areas of confusion and drop-off that can be optimised to deliver higher conversions.

And although the connection between usability and scalability may not be immediately apparent, it makes sense that if people find your services useful and enjoyable then they’ll turn to them more often – not only facilitating, but also driving the expansion and extension of your digital systems. In taking a user-centred approach to design you can also be confident that any improvements you make will always be geared towards serving the needs of your users – and, consequently, the goals of your organisation too.

The tools to scale

However, while an organisation’s culture and processes are crucially important to supporting effective scalability, technical structure is obviously another vital element in ensuring your strategy can keep up with the rapid pace of change that may be required to meet growing demand. Cloud solutions, for example, offer extremely high levels of responsiveness and flexibility, enabling systems to be scaled up (as well as down) as conditions dictate. And, as with the cloud you only pay for the capacity you actually use, it’s also much quicker, easier and cost-effective to trial new solutions that could potentially grow and enhance your services still further. Furthermore, the security challenges that have traditionally prevented the public sector from embracing cloud solutions are being overcome – to the extent that Gartner has predicted that by 2018 increased security will actually be the main driver behind public sector organisations moving to the cloud.

Another technological shift we’re seeing in the public sector is a move away from large software and Software as a Service (SaaS) providers towards open-source solutions. Not only does this help save on cost, but it also frees organisations from the lengthy contracts often associated with these tech giants – who, while they may support scalability in terms of pure volume, can hinder the rapid growth of services in a valuable and appropriate direction.

It’s also important to note that both cloud and open-source technologies also make it much easier to connect and integrate disparate systems, as individual organisations and departments aren’t locked into a variety of siloed solutions. This makes them ideal for supporting the collaborative initiatives mentioned elsewhere in this article – as well as the single, unified portal through which all government services will be delivered that’s been hinted at as a future possibility for the sector.

In summary

While becoming truly scalable undoubtedly requires a significant investment of time and effort from public sector organisations, achieving scalability brings with it a host of other benefits that will deliver value to both your users and your bottom line. And, as many organisations in this sector continue to deal with squeezed budgets and the uncertainty that has followed events such as Brexit, realising these benefits could play a vital role in safeguarding success, relevance and returns in a rapidly-changing landscape.

To find out more about the power of partnerships, download our white paper on the subject – and if you’re interested in learning how Box UK can help you lay solid foundations for scalability, visit our Agile Coaching and User Centred Design sections of our site for further details of these services.