Public services will never be the same again

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that predicting the future is rarely accurate. 12 months ago, many might have feared a pandemic, wildfires or protests but few would have predicted the actual circumstances we find ourselves in today.

However, there are a number of digital trends across the public sector that are becoming clearer and will play out to a greater or lesser extent over the coming years, many of which are actively being driven by one of the most disruptive issues in living memory – coronavirus. The spread of the virus has seen entire countries shutting down their borders and restricting the movement of their citizens, forcing organisations and companies to fundamentally shift their mindsets and transform their ways of operating overnight.

For many this has been a huge challenge. Initially, those who operated more traditional working practices, with the need for staff to physically be in a certain environment to conduct their service, were worst hit, with some having little or no capacity for a mass migration to remote working. A single example saw UKCloud setting up over 1000 remote desktops for an NHS Trust within five days of the need being identified, enabling staff to undertake vital duties as the crisis built towards its peak.

This pace of change would have been seen as impossible mere months prior, with around six years of digital progress being accelerated into around six weeks. Meeting the rapidly changing needs of huge and diverse workforces has driven innovation at this unprecedented rate, and many argue this change has the potential to reform the way public services operate forever, as well as changing the way in which they interact with citizens.

Moving services internally online, and often into the cloud, has unlocked the potential to rethink the operation of those services at a fundamental level. During the crisis, Sevenoaks District Council has moved from the traditional 5-day-a-week, 9 to 5 operating model to a real and virtual 7/7/7 model (7.00am-7.00pm, 7 days a week) to better meet the needs of the citizens it serves. This accelerated change is leading to even more questions:

However, these changes and the pace of it all have not come without risk. Remote working in particular has provided hitherto impossible opportunities for cyber-criminals to exploit homeworkers at scale. Whilst restricting access to systems from a single geographic location has been proven to be severely limiting in many ways, it has the benefit of simplifying security and limiting the options for criminals to discover security loopholes for exploitation.

Homeworking has thrown IT managers a new set of challenges. Some, such as ensuring access to servers via VPN and secure authentication measures, are straightforward to solve with technology. In fact, cloud technology is often even more secure than legacy systems hosted within old buildings. Few public sector organisations can boast security so tight that they are accredited to Above Official, something UKCloud can offer to customers large and small.

Other threats are less easy to manage: the potential for sophisticated criminals to use smart speaker devices to eavesdrop on confidential discussions, users’ home Wi-Fi being found vulnerable and even physical security of laptops in an otherwise open home environment. All these and more are cultural issues that will take some time to unpick and address.

What is certain, however, is that public services have changed. Citizens, workers and organisations have found more is possible, and it’s likely that few will accept a return to the previous model.

This blog was written for techUK’s SME campaign week.