Future-proofing government: Driving sustainable change with technology

Piers Kelly

HCLTech and GovNet Technology recently hosted a breakfast briefing in the House of Lords with central and local UK government, discussing how technology can drive change in the public sector.

On the morning of 23rd November, the GovNet Technology team were delighted to welcome HCLTech to host a critical discussion on Future-Proofing Government. Senior public sector attendees joined to debate how best we can harness the acceleration of change in technology for the betterment of our citizens and customers.

In the Attlee Room of the House of Lords, steeped in rich history, the day opened with Portfolio Director, Steven Everett, providing an introduction into the importance of technological innovation, and how this pertains to Central Government departments and Local Authorities.

After a round of introductions in the room, participants felt comfortable and relaxed – with a Ministry of Defence attendee joking “I don’t need to tell you what we do, you already know!”.

Future Proofing Government Breakfast Briefing at the House of Lords

Cross-governmental discussions of this nature are crucial to establishing shared challenges and advancing the conversation. Ashish Gupta, Chief Growth Officer, Europe and Africa at HCLTech took the stage to discuss in more detail, these shared challenges facing public sector organisations, and which applications and strategies to consider, such as a cloud first approach, SaaS and a new applications lifecycle framework.

User-Led vs Technology-Led Progress

Ashish asked attendees to switch from technology centricity to customer centricity, posing the question “How do we use technology to become both more productive and more collaborative?”.

Showcasing HCLTech’s vision for a virtual assistive world, Ashish played a short video of an empathetic AI generated assistant with human-like interactions.

He explains this “view into the Sci-Fi world” is entirely possible, as all the technologies incorporated are available today. By using a meta-human with a keyboard and voice interface, a virtual assistant will drastically improve productivity.

Before opening the discussion to the group of Central Government and Local Authority attendees, Ashish of HCLTech reflected the “approach to using technology in the public sector should start from user needs and not from how the system enables a user.” Generative AI will shift the balance from a technology view of IT to a user view and how technology supercharges the human in the loop. By this point a clear theme has emerged – user-led vs technology-led progress.

Tech causing Friction

The Innovation Head of Delivery Management at the Ministry of Defence joined the debate, highlighting that some forms of virtual assistants are simply “putting a layer of technology over an existing process.” He made the distinction between digitising, applying new technologies to existing processes, therefore increasing operational efficiencies, and digitalising, which is overhauling current business processes with new technologies, creating added-value and improved customer experiences.

The nods around the room suggested that technology causes more friction when it’s applied on top of an already floored process. Often the processes need to be advanced at the same pace as technology.

Accessibility by Design

A wider issue was highlighted from a Local Government perspective on accessibility, drawing back to the earlier theme of focusing on the user.

The Councillor and Chair of Strategic Planning at Wiltshire Council reminded the room that there are ”1.2 million people without a bank account and over 2 million households without internet in the UK.” There is a massive step change in technology on the horizon, but there are huge swathes of the population which will be left behind. These technologies need to be accessible, and we need to be considerate of vulnerable users.

Ashish of HCLTech joined quickly to ask the room, “how far do we go down the line removing bricks & mortar public services?” with the example of the Netherlands being able to automate large parts of their public domain while maintaining a consolidated, physical Citizens Advice Bureau and Post Office alongside various services for pensions and job centres, which has led to cost savings.

The Director at techUK raised the point that innovative technologies such as “Natural Language Models might be a good way to help people interact with technology without being able to read and write, so this opens doors and removes barriers to entry for vulnerable citizens.”

Future Proofing Government Breakfast Briefing at the House of Lords

HCLTech Public Sector Collaboration

Deputy Director of FDI Sector Advisory Services at the Department for International Trade posed a question to the HCLTech team; “have you done anything in India with the public sector? And are there any learnings we can take from your work so far?”

Paul Montgomery, the Associate Vice President at HCLTech took this opportunity to explain some of the work they’ve done in the public sector so far. The two primary use cases being in Policing and Social Housing.

The “best outcomes have been achieved through collaboration with the sector” continued Paul. Working with Norfolk, Suffolk and Greater Manchester Police Services – HCLTech has been able to streamline processes, putting user interface at the heart of the technology. This approach allows Police Officers to submit evidence without having to go back to the office, increasing productivity and freeing up Officers time to get on with the important job of cutting crime.

Paul of HCLTech went on to explain their work with the Social Housing sector, against a backdrop of a huge amount of regulation. Working with clients who have over 100,000 properties, their technological innovations affect a huge number of citizens. Over the years, HCLTech has again adopted a collaborative approach with their social housing partners and has recently seen large advances in the Internet of Things, incorporating sensors and monitors which help residents make sense of the data.

Of the more advanced technologies, HCLTech has been working on “computer vision”, which Paul explains is AI embedded into camera chips. This same technology can be applied across a wide range of services, from drones to human behaviour. One example raised was applying computer vision to predictive analytics, which helps to understand where elderly people are likely to fall and being able to assist them.

Data Management & Data Quality

At this stage, the conversation opened to move in a different direction and the Deputy Director, Head of Data Capability Centre at the Home Office asked “What are HCLTech doing for businesses in terms of data management and data quality?” underlining the importance of strict data processes and clean data to maximise the value of emerging technologies such as AI and Machine Learning.

“None of this is possible without getting the data right,” responded Ashish. Using Nestle as an example, Ashish explained they’ve spent a great deal of time in data engineering. Once the data is flowing effectively, this now needs to be consumed effectively. Within HCLTech there is a strong analytics team across the world to back this up.

Workplace and Cultural Transformation

The Chief Technology Officer at the Government Property Agency (GPA) agreed with earlier conversations around a user-centric approach. Within the GPA, they look at the user challenge and then see how technology can help this. For example, the implementation of smart access cards, which sounds like a simple bit of technology, to allow people into certain rooms but saves lots of time across all staff members.

The Government Property Agency is also trying to integrate multi-vendors but they’re finding it very challenging to integrate these services effectively across a range of platforms. They are currently looking to the wider market to find solutions for this at present and are pleased HCLTech could be able to help in this situation.

Alongside IT infrastructure challenges, creating a culture of innovation and breaking down boundaries between departments and agencies is paramount. As the Government Property Agency iterate their services to Microsoft 365, there have been barriers to integration for other Government departments causing further difficulty – bringing us back to our earlier question around technology causing more friction rather than less. The aim of Microsoft 365 implementation would be to increase cross-functional collaboration and efficiency.

The Impact of Generative AI

The Deputy Chief Constable of Norfolk Police, observed that “just because the technology allows us – does that mean we should?”

We’re building solutions that take away the skillsets of the people, which means they can’t see when problems with the technology goes wrong. This trend will only be set to increase with the impact of generative AI.

The Head of Change and Delivery at the GLA agreed with the Norfolk Police representative and praised the public sector, “we have an amazing workforce of highly skilled people, that we get to do admin jobs. The value is in creating more capacity for our planners, social workers, police officers, to get out there and do the jobs they want to do, rather than filling in forms and completing administrative jobs.”

The question was then raised, “how else could we be collecting data?” Instead of humans typing this up, can we use AI integrated into a body-worn camera which can write up the notes for you.

Towards the end of the discussion an interesting use case was raised by an Executive Member of Hampshire County Council where they implemented automated phone calling for elderly citizens during the pandemic to save time of phone operators who could then focus on the more vulnerable citizens. This had a remarkable impact for Hampshire County Council and exemplified the benefit of using a medium that the intended audience is familiar with, rather than bringing in new technology which may exclude them.

Ashish then closes the discussion, asking the audience to “think about the users, think about what you’re trying to solve and HCLTech might be able to help.”

This comment stayed with the audience, the murmur and buzz around user-focus and operational efficiencies made its way out of the Attlee Room, into the forecourt of the House of Lords as attendees and the hosts at HCLTech returned to their working days.