Public Sector Technology Roundup: Episode 2

03 Oct 2023

In the 2nd episode of our Public Sector Tech Round-Up, Austin continues his exploration of the potential for generative AI in local authorities. He also explores the latest news on the Civil Service capability gap. Plus, discover the latest opportunities for innovators in health and social care

Links & Sources


Hello and welcome to the 2nd episode of my public sector technology round-ups. Keeping with the same cadence as last month’s episode we’ll highlight some recent news from local and central government as well as the NHS. 

First up, following the release of Socitim’s AI guidance, the London Office of Technology and Innovation (LOTI) has released further guidance resources in which it highlights the vast potential of Generative AI for local authorities. The technology, referred to as 'genAI,' can handle natural language questions, process diverse data types, and generate text and code outputs. LOTI, in collaboration with AI software designer Faculty AI, has released a set of guidance documents aimed at local authority leaders, CIOs, and staff. These documents stress the importance of ethical considerations, data privacy, transparency, and trust when implementing genAI. While outlining various use cases, such as research, personal assistance, image generation, and coding support, the guidance also advises caution, especially in high-risk scenarios. It emphasises the need for staff training, data preparation, governance development, and a focus on safety, fairness, transparency, accountability, privacy, and security. Despite its potential, the deployment of generative AI in local government is still in its early stages, with some councils beginning to use it for document editing and software quality improvement. LOTI's guidance is based on interviews, expert insights, and research, aiming to support London boroughs in harnessing the benefits of this transformative technology.

Now from the Advanced to the Accessible - There won’t be many if any digital leaders in local government for whom accessibility and inclusion is not at the top of their list. However in recent news from Glasgow, concerns have arisen over the training provided to bin lorry drivers on a new in-cab monitoring system, according to Catherine Hunter, a Local Democracy Reporter from the Glasgow Times.

Around 30 staff members walked out in protest after two workers were sent home for refusing to use the new devices, which the union argues should come with extra pay and additional training. It has now been suggested that some drivers may be struggling to learn due to illiteracy or a lack of tech-savviness.

The tablets are designed to enable staff to quickly record various service issues like missed bin collections or pest problems. Glasgow City Council has provided up to three face-to-face training sessions for staff focusing on safe use in the cab, demonstration of processes, and hands-on training. Videos and printed materials were also produced, while additional training was offered.

However, GMB trade union convenor Chris Mitchell raised concerns that older members who struggle with reading and writing may be too embarrassed to ask for extra training, especially regarding the new electronic recording devices. Some workers are not "tech-savvy" and face challenges in adapting to these new technologies that are now part of their daily routine.

Mitchell highlighted that the council has provided extra training, but some workers may be reluctant to discuss their difficulties in a classroom setting due to embarrassment. Despite the challenges faced by some workers, the council continues to offer additional training for staff members who require further support to familiarise themselves with the devices.

Now over to happenings in central government. From Mark Say, a journalist at the online public sector tech publication 'UKAuthority,' comes news that the UK Government's Integrated Data Service (IDS) has reached a significant milestone by obtaining accreditation as a trusted research environment. Dominic Hale, Head of Strategy for the IDS, made the announcement via LinkedIn, declaring the platform open to accredited users. While still in its public beta format, the accreditation affirms the IDS as a secure and safe platform, as noted by an Office for National Statistics (ONS) spokesperson. The accreditation process was conducted under the research strand of the Digital Economy Act by a team from the UK Statistics Authority. Developed in collaboration with the Office for National Statistics, the IDS aims to provide readily accessible data for analysis to inform policy decisions and enhance public services. The ONS spokesperson emphasised that this achievement resulted from a collective effort, involving collaboration across the Civil Service and feedback from existing IDS users, with plans for ongoing development to maximise its potential. Notably, accredited researchers will not need to reapply for access to the IDS, simplifying user access. With a target of 1,500 users, including those from outside the government, by March 2024, the IDS is set to offer a live self-service platform for accredited users.

In a critical assessment of the UK government's digital capabilities and following on from evidence submitted by industry, the Public Accounts Committee has raised concerns in its latest report about severe shortages of digital skills within the civil service. This shortage is further exacerbated by ill-fated headcount cuts, leaving the government with less than half the required number of digital, data, and technology professionals compared to comparable organisations.

The report highlights that the government's inability to compete with the private sector in terms of compensation for critical roles like data architects and cyber security experts poses a significant challenge. Despite the allure of career opportunities and the potential for digital career progression to executive levels, the government risks overreliance on the goodwill of its staff due to consistently lower pay than the private sector.

Moreover, departments are resorting to rationing their digital headcount, including apprenticeships, due to the difficulty of recruiting and retaining skilled professionals. These shortages not only hinder the government's ability to meet its digital transformation goals but also jeopardise the overall efficiency and effectiveness of government operations.

To address these pressing challenges, the report recommends that the Central Digital & Data Office (CDDO) step in to prevent counterproductive cuts to digital headcount as the government seeks to double the size of its digital workforce. Departments are urged to quantify the impact of digital skills shortages on their operations and programmes, taking corrective actions such as programme scaling and transparently acknowledging delays and missed opportunities.

In a notable recognition of its achievements, NHS Shared Business Services (NHS SBS) has earned a spot as one of the top workplaces in the technology sector, according to Great Place to Work. This accolade follows a period of significant organic growth within the organisation, marked by the creation of over 300 jobs and a remarkable increase in turnover to exceed £100 million.

The prestigious list of the best workplaces in tech, which is based on anonymous input from 100,000 professionals in the UK technology industry, has been running for six years. NHS SBS's Managing Director, Erika Bannerman, expressed the profound impact of technology in healthcare, emphasising its transformative potential. While healthcare has witnessed remarkable advancements in clinical technology, NHS SBS aims to extend this transformation to corporate services within the NHS, such as procurement and payroll. The organisation recognizes that cost savings translate to saving lives, and by promoting a digital-first approach across the entire NHS, with its inherent efficiencies, they are enhancing the lives of both patients and staff.

This achievement follows closely on the heels of NHS SBS being awarded the title of Finance Team of the Year for its exemplary data transition efforts during the integrated care overhaul in 2022. 

And finally, the National Health Service (NHS) Innovation Accelerator (NIA) has called upon innovators in the field of health and social care to join the latest round of its national-level accelerator program supported by the Accelerated Access Collaborative and the Academic Health Science Network. The NIA offers tailored support for innovators, in collaboration with organisations like NICE, NHS England, the Academic Health Science Network, the MHRA, and industry groups.

For the 2024 intake, the programme is looking for innovations addressing health inequalities within the NHS England Core20PLUS5 approach, which targets health disparities in adults and children. The call this year is also open to innovations supporting Carbon Reduction solutions, putting net zero as a core concern for the NHS. 

That's all we've got time for this week. Thanks ever so much for tuning into my tech round-up. I've been Austin from Codurance and we look forward to having you join us next month.