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Public sector digital trends 2023 collection | Article

Public sector digital trends: introduction

In making digital predictions, there is often excitement about the role of emerging technologies and an expectation of dramatic step-changes. Yet, these are rarely the case. Promises of massive disruption through new technologies tend not to happen in the space of a single year, despite the views of enthusiastic pundits and technology commentators.

More often, specific priorities and technologies from previous years simply shift ‘up and down’ the list, in response to external pressures, growing digital maturity and changing public expectations.

The exception, of course, was Covid. In the space of two years, organisations moved wholesale to mobile and flexible working with accelerated digital self-service. This unprecedented digital shift now requires consolidation and rationalisation to maintain momentum. Examples include removing ‘technical debt’ (the result of adopting short-term IT workarounds or solutions that create future deferred costs) and dealing with underlying but significant cyber risk.

Our research reveals that, in 2023, we will see a switch by public service organisations to more sustained and systematic adoption of digital transformation. If 2020-22 was about changing the way people work, 2023-24 will be about changing how public services function, often in collaboration across places, and driven by a context of unprecedented pressures globally and locally.

2023 will see digital and IT leaders in the public sector prioritising consolidation of the rapid digital and technology deployment necessitated by the pandemic, with a focus on retrofitting cyber improvements and management controls to new ways of working. Cyber resilience risks and data exploitation opportunities are at the top of the list across all public sector organisations and countries in 2023.

The year ahead will also see an acceleration of digital programmes and new technologies that were held back over the last two years. These technologies include artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of things (IoT) and distributed data models, but it is the digital trends that dominate – how technology can address the local impact of many global challenges.

Our research has found that the pressures building on public services, as we move into 2023, are driving the ongoing pace and priorities of digital transformation, to protect services as much as improve them, to increase efficiency and productivity and to respond to growing citizen demands. Multi-channel access to services, shared infrastructure and collaborative partnerships will rise in importance.  This shift in focus will require a fundamental reassessment of corporate strategies, as much as IT plans in 2023, with a strong emphasis being placed on the resilience of ‘connected places’ and the public services upon which they depend.

“As we move into 2023, the local government sector…. legacy systems and estates are having to cope with an increasingly mobile and digitally enabled workforce. Whilst new technology always helps, the real opportunity for local authorities lies in …. three areas:
• Channel blending and the rise of the single citizen interaction
• Regional network infrastructure projects to drive social and economic benefit
• Local strategic partnerships, eco-systems and co-source partnerships.”

Stuart Smith, Head of Local Government, Exponential-e

There is a clear and maturing vision now in public service organisations of the distinction between ‘digital’ and ‘technology’, and ‘digital public services’ versus ‘digital government’. Trying simply to emulate commercial examples, such as Amazon, in public services may drive efficiency, but they fail to recognise the symbiotic relationship between the wellbeing of people, communities and places, and the delivery of public services that enables them to thrive and play their part in society. This relationship is being brought into sharp focus in the UK and other countries as the public sector responds to the challenges covered in the next section of this report.

“A cost-of-living crisis is a sign that something basic about how we imagine society has gone fantastically wrong. When ‘living’ becomes a commodity that some can afford and some can’t, the assumption that we ought to be able to trust one another to sustain our security is being challenged at the root. We are being lured into that most destructive of myths: that the essential human position is as an individual purchaser acquiring desirable goods – not a contributor to the building of a trustworthy network of relations, dependable enough to allow more people to become active and generous contributors.”

Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, England

Our collection is divided in two main sections:

  • ‘Digital trends’ (how technology is changing organisations, services, and how connected places impact communities)
  • ‘Technology trends’ (which technologies are important in enabling digital developments).

Challenging context for 2023

Not in the last 50 years has the backdrop for the coming year been more challenging for local public services and local authorities in particular. From environmental breakdown to disrupted labour markets, Figure 1 lists these pressures.

Figure 1: Unprecedented pressures facing public services in 2023

In the UK, resource cutbacks, interest rate hikes, pay constraints and inflation have meant that a growing number of local authorities have been unable to balance their budgets in 2022. Looking ahead to 2023, more councils and health authorities are indicating they too will not be able to balance their budgets. Elsewhere, many of these pressures are being felt, if not always to the same extent as in the UK. This will have significant implications for digital developments – both as a solution to the pressures, but also to be scrutinised more closely and as a growing cost.

“2023 had the promise of being a landmark year for digital transformation in central government. However, with the UK entering recession and the ensuing strain on public finances, it seems more likely that some BAU transformation projects will be put on the back burner again”

Rob Anderson, Research Director, GlobalData Technology

Despite this backdrop and the uncertainty that it brings, there is much optimism found amongst public service digital leaders, especially in the potential of digital innovation in service design, collaboration, digital inclusion, and automation. Some talk of a ‘connected places eco-system’ of digital services and local infrastructure, joining data, teams, systems, and infrastructures around local needs irrespective of organisational boundaries. That will be a growing direction of travel in 2023, especially in ‘smart cities’.

At the same time, significant concerns for IT teams continue to lie in areas such as legacy IT being no longer fit for purpose, problems with skills recruitment and retention and ever-changing cyber threats. These concerns will continue to generate growing levels of risk, barriers, and opportunities for digital deployment in public services in 2023.

Flexibility in plans for the coming year will be important, including revisiting and realigning corporate, digital and IT strategies, with a heightened need to be able to demonstrate measurable business benefits from digital and IT investments. There is also evidence that the role of digital leaders (‘Digital Data and Technology’ – DDaT professionals) will shift in the year to meet this challenge.

It is this context that will drive digital priorities for public services in 2023, with a growing focus on local connections and devolution from central governments. This is particularly true in the UK, where Michael Gove, Minister for the Department of Levelling Up Local Government, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), has agreed a number of devolution deals, such as to the Norfolk and Suffolk regions, giving them over £1billion to invest in their local communities.

“As ageing populations and Covid/energy crisis indebtedness put pressure on public spending, while fractious populations expect more, governments are under pressure to use digital solutions more effectively to deliver services. How well they succeed in 2023 will vary dramatically.”

Ben Page, Chief Executive Officer, Ipsos, UK

Alongside these developments, the Local Government Association LGA), Socitm and Solace (Society of Local Authority Chief Executives) have reviewed the current landscape of digital support to distil 12 key components of digitalisation needed to have an impactful outcome for residents, businesses, and communities. Each of the outcomes resonates strongly with the digital trends identified in our research. An infographic setting out a brief explanation of each ‘Local Digitalisation Outcome’ is available on our resource hub. The LGA is hosting half-day masterclasses with local elected members to help them understand and apply the framework in their own local settings.


Case study

Cornwall Council – devolution

Cornwall £360m devolution deal unveiled (localgov.co.uk)

In early December 2022, Cornwall Council announced a devolution deal worth £360 million, with promises from the government for new local powers over housing, education, and transport (such as smart ticketing systems).

“This gives us the opportunity to secure more decision-making powers as well as bringing in millions of pounds of extra investment which will allow us to shape the future of Cornwall for the benefit of residents for many years to come.”

– Councillor Linda Taylor, Leader of Cornwall Council, England