The digital divide: making digital transformation work for, not against, citizens

John Owen, Group CEO at enterprise digital transformation specialist Mastek, shares his views on how public and private sector businesses can surge ahead by capitalising on digital technology to support decision-making and enhance user experiences

How do you see technology helping businesses making better decisions?

Today, most companies operate in a global market with fewer – and lower – barriers to entry. Where globalisation was an issue for established corporates, it’s now an opportunity and threat to any and every company. The traditional sources of competitive advantage have also eroded and been replaced by the ability to capture, analyse, disseminate and convert unprecedented volumes and sources of data into actionable information to improve decision-making speed, accuracy and scope.

The reason the rate of innovation appears to be increasing is because we can now analyse more data, from more sources, faster. We’re only at the start of this digital revolution and although this so-called fourth industrial revolution will drive many market discontinuities and challenge traditional thinking, it will also generate huge opportunities for the people, companies and government that harness the new powers. In the immediate term, I don’t see an algorithm making all decisions. Instead, it will provide better-quality information in real time to support smarter decision-making, which means that we must transition from collating the data to interpreting and acting on it.

What are the ways in which technology can help government improve interactions with citizens over the next decade?

Citizens are the same as consumers. It’s just that they consume public services and rarely have choice. However, they still have increasing and exponential expectations of how, when, where and on what they interact with the government. As an example, most of us in society wouldn’t tolerate having to take time off work to queue up in a post office to renew car tax. These basic services can be done online, 24/7, in the comfort of our own homes at a time that’s convenient to us. Tax returns are another great example where technology has provided a more efficient service between the citizen and the government.

Importantly, the state saves billions of pounds in back-office operating costs, which hopefully gets redirected into frontline services. The next stage must be to provide a seamless link-up of the IT systems of government departments, so that they can view me as an individual and provide the right services (personalised to my needs) at the right time – further improving the interaction between citizens and the state.

I am personally shocked that the NHS doesn’t yet have a complete picture of my health and the wasted time, potential errors and frustration of missing notes, making doctors’ appointments non-productive. Whereas even my supermarket has a history of what I like or dislike. Surely our most prized asset should have access to basic data that supports my healthcare. Once we truly harness the power of the NHS with better data capture, analysis and dissemination, we will see new treatments emerging faster and at lower costs. This is the transformative power of user insight. Although the “digital by default” policy of the government was intended to save money, it has probably had a stronger transformational impact of putting citizens at the heart of decision-making, which can only be good for public services and society.

Will Brexit have a short and long-term impact on public sector technology?

Yes and yes. In the short term, the UK will have to build new technology infrastructure from the ground up as a direct outcome of Brexit. For instance, as we withdraw from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy we need to build a brand-new payments system, as the European Union has delivered this service on our behalf for many years. I understand there are some 34 new departments and/or executive agencies that have to take back control, which will require basic investment.

Beyond the transition phase, I am excited to see how the UK government can innovate across the public sector to stimulate our economy, our healthcare and our society to build a thriving ecosystem. Given the time constraints and global ambitions, a healthy technology segment will be the only catalyst to enable UK PLC to build a viable and sustainable digital economy. Financial and human capital will flow into this ecosystem, but vision, leadership, regulation and investment must be forthcoming.

What do you think will be the single biggest change technology will deliver over the next decade?

Similar to the digital divide, we are witnessing a societal divide where the tech-savvy surge ahead while those who fail to adapt are left behind, and that cannot be right or desirable. In that sense, technology is a double-edged sword, which has the power to innovate and educate, as well as the power to disrupt and divide. Take the proliferation of fake news in the media and the manipulation of the last election results in the US, based on algorithms of social media user profiles. How we authenticate information in the digital world is as fundamental as the passport system is to international travel. I believe that regulators have a key role to play in maintaining transparency and accountability around the use of technology in the coming years and, at present, I think it’s fair to say they are playing catch-up at best!

Is globalisation good for the UK tech industry?

Absolutely. Simply put, we’re not self-sufficient as a country with all the technology jobs we need. Hence, we need close relationships with countries such as India, which generate high-quality engineering talent at an industrial scale. It’s a similar picture in the NHS with healthcare professionals, where other countries can help the UK accelerate its resourcing plans. Where I think globalisation has not worked is in simply offshoring work, rather than know-how, to low-cost labour markets. This race to the bottom doesn’t create sustainable value and companies. Countries and individuals irreversibly lose knowledge and experience in the process.

Where it works well for customers, employees and economies is where intellectual property (IP), experience and investments flow seamlessly and transparently across borders. There must be a level playing field on tax, legislation and employee rights to make the model work for all stakeholders. The UK has the raw talent, but we need to partner with countries that have the capacity, shared values and long-term motivation to build bilateral trade agreements where investments are reinvested into both countries to balance out the playing field.

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