HCLTech and GovNet Technology recently hosted a critical discussion on future-proofing government. Senior public sector attendees joined to debate how best government can harness the acceleration of change in technology for the betterment of citizens and customers.
Cross-governmental discussions of this nature are crucial to establishing shared challenges and advancing the conversation on different solutions. Ashish K. Gupta, Chief Growth Officer, Europe and Africa at HCLTech, began the discussion by exploring the shared challenges that public sector organizations face, while highlighting what applications and strategies to consider, such as a cloud first approach, SaaS and a new applications lifecycle framework.
User-led versus technology-led progress
Gupta asked attendees to switch from technology centricity to customer centricity, posing the question “How do we use technology to become both more productive and more collaborative?”
Showcasing HCLTech’s vision for a digitally augmented world, Gupta played a short video of an empathetic AI generated assistant with human-like interactions.
He explained this “view into the Sci-Fi world” is entirely possible, as all the technologies incorporated are available today. By using a meta-human with a keyboard and voice interface, a virtual assistant will drastically improve productivity.
He added: “The approach to using technology in the public sector should start from user needs and not from how the system enables a user.”
Generative AI will shift the balance from a technology view of IT to a user view and accelerate how technology augments the human in the loop.
Tech can cause friction
The Innovation Head of Delivery Management at the UK Ministry of Defence highlighted that some forms of virtual assistants are simply “putting a layer of technology over an existing process.” He made the distinction between digitizing — applying new technologies to existing processes and increasing operational efficiencies — and digitalizing, which is an overhaul of current business processes with new technologies, creating added-value and improved customer experiences.
The general consensus around the room suggested that technology causes more friction when it’s applied on top of an already flawed process. Often the processes need to be advanced at the same pace as technology.
Accessibility by design
A wider issue was highlighted from a local government perspective on accessibility, drawing back to the earlier theme of focusing on the user.
The Councilor and Chair of Strategic Planning at Wiltshire Council reminded the room that there are “1.2 million without a bank account and over 2 million households without internet in the UK.” There is a massive step change in technology on the horizon, but there are huge swathes of the population which will be left behind. These technologies need to be accessible, and we need to be considerate of vulnerable users.
In response, Gupta asked: “How far do we go down the line of removing bricks & mortar public services?” He provided the example of the Netherlands being able to automate large parts of their public domain, while maintaining a consolidated, physical Citizens Advice Bureau and Post Office alongside various services for pensions and job centers, which has led to cost savings.
A Director from techUK — the trade association — raised the point that innovative technologies such as “Natural Language Models might be a good way to help people who don’t know have to read or write interact with technology, so this opens doors and removes barriers to entry for some vulnerable citizens.”
HCLTech public sector collaboration
Deputy Director of FDI Sector Advisory Services at the Department for International Trade posed a question to the HCLTech team: “Are there any learnings we can take from your work so far?”
Paul Montgomery, Associate Vice President at HCLTech, took this opportunity to explain some of the work the IT transformation partner has done in the public sector so far. The two primary use cases are in policing and social housing.
The “best outcomes have been achieved through collaboration with the sector,” said Montgomery. Working with UK police forces, HCLTech has been able to streamline processes, putting user experience at the heart of the technology. This approach allows police officers to submit evidence without having to go back to the office, increasing productivity and freeing up officers’ time to get on with the important job of cutting crime.
Montgomery went on to explain HCLTech’s work with the social housing sector, against a backdrop of a huge amount of regulation. Working with clients who have over 100,000 properties, HCLTech has again adopted a collaborative approach with their social housing partners and has recently seen large advances in the Internet of Things, incorporating sensors and monitors which help residents make sense of the data.
Of the more advanced technologies, HCLTech has been working on “computer vision,” which Montgomery explained is AI embedded into camera chips. This same technology can be applied across a wide range of services, from drones to human behavior. One example raised was applying computer vision to predictive analytics, which helps to understand where elderly people are likely to fall and being able to assist them.
Data management and data quality
The conversation then shifted in a different direction and the Deputy Director, Head of Data Capability Centre at the Home Office asked: “What is HCLTech doing for businesses in terms of data management and data quality?” This underlined the importance of strict data processes and clean data to maximize the value of emerging technologies such as AI and machine learning.
“None of this is possible without getting the data right,” responded Gupta. Using an example, Gupta explained HCLTech has spent a great deal of time in data engineering. Once the data is flowing effectively, this now needs to be consumed effectively. Within HCLTech there is a strong analytics team across the world to back this up.
Workplace and cultural transformation
The Chief Technology Officer at the Government Property Agency (GPA) agreed with earlier conversations around a user-centric approach. Within the GPA, they look at the user challenge and then see how technology can help this. For example, the implementation of smart access cards to allow people into certain rooms, which saves lots of time across all staff members and ensures security measures are in place.
The Government Property Agency is also trying to integrate multi-vendors but they’re finding it very challenging to integrate these services effectively across a range of platforms.
Alongside IT infrastructure challenges, creating a culture of innovation and breaking down boundaries between departments and agencies is paramount. As the Government Property Agency iterate their services to Microsoft 365, there have been barriers to integration for other Government departments causing further difficulty — bringing us back to our earlier question around technology causing more friction rather than less. The aim of Microsoft 365 implementation would be to increase cross-functional collaboration and efficiency.
The impact of generative AI
The Deputy Chief Constable of Norfolk Police, observed that “just because the technology allows us, does that mean we should?”
As technology evolves, solutions are built that take away the skillsets of the people, which means they can’t see when problems with technologies arise — there is a lack of people who understand how the technology works. This trend is only set to increase with the impact of generative AI.
The Head of Change and Delivery at the GLA agreed with the Norfolk Police representative and praised the public sector, “we have an amazing workforce of highly skilled people that we get to do admin jobs. The value is in creating more capacity for our planners, social workers and police officers to get out there and do the jobs they want to do, rather than filling in forms and completing administrative jobs.”
Toward the end of the discussion an interesting use case was raised by an Executive Member of Hampshire County Council where they implemented automated phone calling for elderly citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic to save time of phone operators who could then focus on the more vulnerable citizens. This had a remarkable impact for Hampshire County Council and exemplified the benefit of using a medium that the intended audience is familiar with, rather than bringing in new technology which may exclude them.
Gupta closed the discussion by asking the audience to “think about the users, think about what you’re trying to solve and how HCLTech might be able to help.”
This comment stayed with the audience, the murmur and buzz around user-focus and operational efficiencies made its way out of the Attlee Room, into the forecourt of the House of Lords as attendees and the hosts at HCLTech returned to their working days.
A version of this article originally appeared on GovNet Technology’s blog