Felicity Hawksley, journalist

How often do you see headlines about this or that government technology programme hitting difficulties? Or about public sector IT infrastructure lagging well behind technology in the private sector? Probably quite often.

Getting public sector organisations, such as the NHS or the police, up to speed with technology is no small task. They deliver critical and ongoing services, hold masses of information going back decades, and require serious security protocols.

Time-poor systems managers often spend their days fighting cyber threats and system outages

There are other challenges, too. Technology has to provide excellent value for money – after all, it’s the taxpayers who are footing the bill. And it has to be interoperable across agencies.

So what can public sector employees – especially accountants – do to make sure they’re making the right decisions?

The right fit

Technology trade association techUK is trying to soothe the fevered brow of public sector IT procurement teams across local and central government, health, social care, policing and the courts.

Georgina Maratheftis, techUK’s associate director, Local Public Services, says that the goal of the organisation is to ‘work with the public sector to understand what problems they’re trying to solve – and then find the tech that fits’.

She argues that focusing on three things – value for money, meeting clear needs and working well into the future – underpins a good procurement process, and that public sector organisations need to move towards more outcome-led procurement.

‘Problems can vary from systems not being interoperable or not talking to each other, to understanding what data the organisation actually has, how to use it ethically and securely, and how to leverage it to deliver targeted and in some cases proactive services,’ says Maratheftis.

Time-poor systems managers don’t often have knowledge of the latest developments in technology and spend their days fighting cyber threats and system outages.

The root problem is that managers often cannot articulate what the issue is

Articulate the issue

But the root problem, says Maratheftis, is that managers often cannot articulate what the issue is, so techUK’s first stop is to run workshops with public sector organisations to help them ‘interrogate problems, discuss outcomes and get connected to suppliers’.

This early connection to suppliers is key, says Maratheftis, since public sector organisations can understand the art of the possible while they discuss their issues in a neutral space. She says her organisation can support accountants in the public sector by connecting them with industry to:

  • help connect their accounting systems and ensure that they are interoperable with other public service software, including creating a single sign-on for employees
  • roll out chatbots that mean citizens can engage with their public services out of hours by, for example, logging payment problems or clearing balances
  • find AI solutions to automate low-level rote tasks
  • recommend and implement robotic process automation to reduce processing times for audits and contracts down to two weeks, instead of a month
  • implement blockchain technology so that accounts users can access ledgers in real time, create smart contracts and record transactions
  • choose and implement cloud computing systems that allow finance teams to collaborate more easily with clients, access resources instantly and update information in real time.
Showcasing innovation

The entity also has some influence over policy, says Maratheftis, thanks to its 850 members. ‘Because we have so many members, from large global players right through to SMEs, we can confidently act as the voice of the technology industry in the UK.’

This means that, according to techUK, it has become the ‘go-to for when government wants to engage with the tech sector to either validate a strategy or get feedback’. They also work with their members to put together recommendations to government.

In many ways, the public sector is the perfect place to leverage innovative digital technologies

And it brings the industry to the public sector, too, by running ‘innovation showcases’ where government teams can outline a challenge and tech SMEs are invited to pitch solutions. In early 2022, techUK enabled the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to hold a virtual ‘Digital Planning and Citizen Engagement Innovation Showcase’, where eight suppliers pitched digital tools to local authorities that could help communities to positively engage in planning conversations.

In many ways, the public sector is the perfect place to leverage innovative digital technologies. Not only is there a desperate need to run ahead of problems in areas such as health and policing, where predictive technologies can save lives, but there is a need for public sector services to be more efficient, transparent and user-friendly.

It’s techUK’s goal to help deliver this and, if they’re successful, regular headlines about data leaks, jammed-up IT systems, and failed innovation projects might just become a thing of the past.