What can large businesses learn from the Public Sector?

Big ben at night

Commercial 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 Foundry4's very own Matt Jukes. 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,”

“I just thought – actually, they’ve done everything we would not allow to happen in any part of government digital transformation any more.” says Jukes.

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