Public sector needs to accelerate investment to improve citizen services, says research

Programme delivery contends with inconsistent goal setting and increased pressure for efficiencies, shows Unit4’s State of the Digital Nation 2023 survey

Posted 23 May 2023 by Christine Horton

Inconsistency in strategy is hampering transformation in the UK public sector, according to new research.

This is most likely resulting from organisations having to switch focus from dealing with the pandemic to short-term initiatives to sustain services against a backdrop of budget constraints, says Unit4’s 2023 State of the Digital Nation survey.

Forty-nine percent of UK central government organisations say changing priorities are stopping their change programmes. Meanwhile, 38 percent of local government say that staff are resistant to change.

The international report warned that if public sector bodies do not keep sight of long-term objectives for transformation, they risk stagnation in the pace of change. This is at a time when accelerating such initiatives will be even more important to improving services and outcomes for citizens.

Globally, shifting priorities are stopping change programmes (40 percent). This indicates that moving goal posts are having a detrimental effect on the long-term delivery of transformation initiatives. This problem is most prevalent in the UK and Canada (45 percent respectively) and central government (49 percent).

The second most likely challenge at a total level is leadership resistance to change (34 percent), which is also the most likely issue in Sweden (46 percent). The third most likely impediment overall is back office systems that prevent organizations from being agile and adaptable (32 percent), which is the most likely issue for the Netherlands (41 percent). Separately, the most likely challenge for local government is staff resistance to change.

UK public sector call for improvements in data compatibility

Forty percent of UK public sector institutions say they have a digital transformation strategy that is partially implemented or rolled out across some areas of the organisation. Twenty-seven say they have a digital transformation strategy where implementation is very minimal, and only rolled out across one or two departments or teams within the organisation.

In the UK, 53 percent are completely confident projects will be delivered within budget compared to only 33 percent in Sweden.

However, 35 percent say wholesale improvements of data compatibility across departments and applications are needed. In central government, 43 percent say wholesale improvements needed, while the same number in local government say large improvements are needed.

Top three challenges for public sector

When asked about the top three changes the UK public sector has seen in the last two years, 49 percent say there is greater pressure to deliver efficiency savings. There is also a greater focus on sustainability (45 percent) – by far the highest percentage against the global average of 32 percent. There is also public pressure to improve spending transparency (37 percent).

When it comes to securing cost savings, the UK public sector is strongly in favour of cutting services (37 percent) – highest total in the survey. It is also looking at adopting lower cost solutions that deliver efficiencies through collaboration, as well as mandatory or voluntary redundancies (29 percent). Twenty-eight percent said they are moving to a shorter working week to save salary costs.

“It is understandable that efficiency is the watchword for most public sector organizations today, amid an ever-increasing level of scrutiny over spending,” said Chris Richards, regional president UK&I, Unit4.

“Against such a backdrop, the reality is that organisations are simply focused on making sure services are delivered, but we see the warning signs that it is getting harder to do this within budget and without raising taxes. Even with such pressure, though, it is critical to retain focus on long-term transformation goals, as ultimately this is what will benefit citizens and revolutionise services.”