Editorial

COVID-accelerated digital transformation taking public sector by storm

Cebr report sets out economic gains from investment in technology across health, education, government and blue-light

Posted 18 February 2021 by

The rate of digital transformation in health and social care has accelerated by between three and five years, due to forcing through innovations that help to improve efficiency.

That’s one of the key findings from a report launched this week by Virgin Media Business and the Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr).

The study notes that digital processes in the public sector will create efficiency gains and cost-savings which, when invested in improved services and new infrastructure, could create a boost worth £75 billion – and potentially more – to national GDP by 2040.

Health

“Reforming long-standing services to promote real choice, competition, innovation and value for money is always difficult,” said Patrick Clark, Health and Social Care Network (HSCN) Programme Director at NHS Digital, in the report.

“The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated how important it is to underpin online digital services with the right connectivity. Good connectivity is vital for healthcare practitioners, supporting them with faster, more reliable access to the information and services they need, when they need it.”

Before the outbreak of COVID-19, there was a lower rate of relative digital transformation adoption across the health sector – particularly compared to some private sectors. However, insights from Cebr said the sector could realise significant gains from increased use of technology – from enhanced employee efficiency through to the improvement of service quality and delivery, particularly through telemedicine.

Research by NHS Digital found that there has been a huge increase in the usage of NHS Digital Services to access healthcare remotely because of COVID-19. In 2020, there was a 257 percent increase in the use of NHS 111 online, and a tenfold increase in the use of the NHS app.

GDP gains (to be released across the overall economy) from COVID-accelerated digital transformation in healthcare are estimated to be approximately £33 billion in 2040 (around one percent of 2040 GDP).

Education

In 2019, the UK government set out its digital education strategy, which aims to harness technology to reduce teacher workload, increase efficiencies and raise learning standards for students in primary and secondary education.

As the government continues to implement these plans in line with advancements made during the pandemic, digitally aided teaching will continue to increase in importance.

Further, and more radical, transformations may also be realised in higher education, as the digital-first model becomes more commonplace. This could mean that previously investigated benefits are now delivered in practice to improve learning provision across the UK, says the report.

For example, a 2017 study by the Higher Education Policy Institute found that technology enhanced learning through curriculum redesign can achieve savings of 31 percent and increase retention by as much as 5.7 percent for low-income students.

By 2040, economy-wide gains attributable to digital investment in the education sector are approximately £10bn – around 0.3 percent of 2040 UK GDP.

Local and central government, and blue-light services

Throughout the pandemic, local authorities have rapidly adapted to keep providing citizens with vital services that support local communities and the most vulnerable. This has been achieved through the launch of new online platforms and services for citizens, and through the move of sector employees to remote working.

During the first peak of the pandemic, 82 percent of local authority workers were working from home, up from five percent before, according to research from public sector IT association, Socitm (Society for innovation, technology and modernisation). Due to the mass roll-out of remote working, 80 percent were also using office collaboration and videoconferencing tools to continue working, up from 30 percent before the pandemic.

“We had to scale things up overnight. Thankfully, we had already been investing in the infrastructure that came into play,” said Jai Ghai, head of ICT, City of Wolverhampton Council. “Staff had to work from anywhere and everywhere. They didn’t have to be desk-bound anymore. This is now the new normal. We want to use this opportunity to roll out more online channels. We want to enable better outcomes for citizens and residents.”

The nature of most government services allows COVID-accelerated digital transformation to have a sizeable impact in the sector. Swindon Borough Council is a great example of how the pandemic has transformed public services. Following a 2,000 percent spike in free meal applications, the council rapidly adopted a process automation system to handle such a volume of enquiries, leading to a 98.3 percent efficiency gain.

Technology has proven critical to the continuing provision of local services. And where people need new skills or support to access online services, councils are being proactive.

“We want people in Greater Manchester to get on in life and we want our economy to thrive. And we firmly believe digital is central to that aspiration,” said Sara Todd, CEO for Greater Manchester Combined Authority Digital. “Digital is key to enabling our region to recover from this pandemic. To genuinely enable us to level up across the country…as well as how we level up in in Greater Manchester. Our intention is to be a 100 percent digitally enabled city region. To help everyone have access to the internet. And to do so with confidence and safety.”

Additionally, public demand for digitised government services during COVID-19 will drive accelerated digital transformation over the coming decades. Across local and central government, and blue-light services, the GDP uplift is estimated to be £32 billion, or around one percent of UK GDP in 2040.