Navigating economic uncertainty: how tech-led innovation can empower the UK’s public sector

In the current economic crisis, the only option is to radically rethink day-to-day operations to deliver more with less, says Chris Hornung, managing director of public sector at Totalmobile

Posted 12 June 2023 by Christine Horton

Among the varying challenges facing the UK economy during the past 12 months, the impact of double-digit inflation has seen hundreds of thousands of public sector workers – from doctors and nurses to university lecturers, civil servants, and London Underground staff – take strike action over pay. The Consumer Prices Index (CPI), which peaked at a 41-year high of 11.1 percent last October, was well ahead of the average pay growth seen between September and November last year, which came in at 6.4 percent overall and 3.3 percent for the public sector.

These represent extremely difficult issues, with public sector employers and employees focused on quite different and competing priorities. While public sector workers are “bearing the brunt” of the cost of living crisis and challenging employers to ensure pay keeps pace with major price rises, the government is focused on reducing inflation. As the Spring Budget 2023 Policy Paper argues, “ . . . domestic price and wage pressures have been stronger than expected, suggesting risks of greater persistence in underlying inflation. Whole economy regular pay growth is 6.5 percent. This level of pay growth is not consistent with returning CPI inflation sustainably to the two percent target.”

This comes at a time when the delivery of public services is under renewed pressure and scrutiny, with public spending being kept under tight control. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the recent Spring Budget set out spending plans after 2025 that were “topped up to reflect the defence and childcare changes, but otherwise left unchanged. Those plans will see day-to-day public service funding grow by around one percent per year in real terms, and investment budgets frozen in cash terms.”

The analysis goes on to argue that “Sticking to them while increasing the NHS budget and delivering on the new ambition to boost defence spending to 2.5 percent of national income will require a squeeze on other areas.”

Driving operational efficiency with tech-led innovation

As a result, the public sector is confronted with two competing challenges: increasing economic pressure and a surge in demand for services. During periods of economic instability or recession, there is generally a significant increase in the need for public sector resources such as healthcare and social assistance. However, money allocated to these services rarely sees a corresponding increase. In fact, it is common for these mounting pressures to coincide with substantial budget cuts or spending increases that don’t keep pace with inflation.

And herein lies an important point about the delivery of public services now and in the future. To increase efficiency, quality, and outcomes under these kinds of circumstances, the only additional option is to radically rethink day-to-day operations to deliver more with less.

One major area of opportunity is to refocus on the wide-ranging benefits that can emerge from tech-led innovation. More specifically, public sector organisations that look for new methods and solutions that prioritise efficiency, productivity, and performance can more effectively balance budgetary constraints with the need to deliver better services at scale.

Take staff scheduling, for example. By utilising appropriate software, frontline workers – including those in social care – can significantly enhance their productivity. In practical day-to-day terms, mobile workers accessing their schedules on their connected devices can eliminate the requirement of daily check-ins at a central office, allowing them to proceed directly to each assignment with much greater efficiency.

Moreover, these field service applications can be used to quickly and efficiently document critical information for each task or at each location, reducing the time devoted to administrative tasks and providing more time for actual appointments throughout the day.

Given the potential service delivery advantages of delivering a joined-up approach across different public sector bodies, government organisations that can implement unified solutions which span multiple departments will be much better placed to boost effectiveness and efficiency. Indeed, building more integrated services that share information and resources among all stakeholder groups can help optimise workforce resources that put greater emphasis on cost-effective investment, worker security, and overall service quality.

By embracing the opportunities presented by these and other transformative digital technologies, the public sector has an opportunity not only to address its immediate challenges but also to build a more resilient, agile, and future-proofed service landscape. This approach can serve as a blueprint for navigating the challenges of today and lay the foundation for a more innovative and sustainable public sector that is ready to tackle the uncertainties – and major opportunities – that lay ahead.