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Re-engineering the Way the Public Sector Deals with Data

Joachim Murat, public sector industry director, EMEA civil government, VMware 

It’s an easy pastime to berate governments for their failures and mismanagement. History is littered with examples – all of which are party agnostic. By default it is less common to hear effusive praise when things are done well. Credit where credit is due is conspicuously absent when it comes to the public sector, with the notable recent exception of the vaccine roll-out (though that too, brought out the naysayers inevitably). Indeed, we’re quick to overlook the incredible projects happening everywhere from healthcare to highways and shopping to safety where government organizations are delivering some genuinely society shaping stuff. 

But our general resistance to the happenings of these projects – or just our outright refusal to believe they’re happening at all – is creating a logjam on progress. As citizens we’re experiencing daily innovations in almost every sector we interact with. Yet, according to our latest Digital Frontiers research, we remain reluctant to trust the government with our data in order for them to affect change.  

More expected of government 

Compared to the private sector, governments must do more, work harder and deliver better results to get the same level of credit and public support. As a result, many governments around Europe have made interoperable and connected data a top priority. Only a matter of weeks ago, the European Commission opened the second set of calls for proposals for the Digital Europe Programme. This will see an investment of more than €249 million in several areas: data spaces, European blockchain infrastructure, training courses for advanced digital skills, digital solutions for better government services, projects piloting the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to fight crime, and AI testing facilities. However, this is also tempered with the desire of governments to keep data within country, or perhaps with Europe and not in residence outside of borders. This adds fuel to the fire of unacceptable consequences for our data being used and abused. 

In 2020, the UK published its national data strategy, which includes the mission to transform the government’s use of data to drive efficiency and improve public services based on an appropriately safeguarded, joined-up and interoperable data infrastructure. In Germany, the federal government has launched a national program to modernise the public-sector data landscape. These examples are evidence that the government is coming to the table with a desire to invest, learn and develop. But our research says that is not enough for us as citizens to fully embrace or trust them with our data. Yet despite the investment, appetite, and willingness of governments, delivering real-world adaptations at every level of society is proving to be a very slow process. 

Perceived price of progress is too high 

This is because the perceived price of progress is too high – consumers are not yet fully on-board with sharing the data required to fuel change. It found 61% of consumers are scared or uncomfortable sharing their personal day-to-day data to help governments and companies design smarter and greener infrastructure, even if this data is anonymised and amalgamated. And only 13% are excited at the prospect of a digital shadow of the town or city they live in that could improve the efficiency of their physical surroundings. For instance, one-fifth of people are nervous about the concept of councils introducing smart bins. Biometrics, too, are equally divisive.   

It also found that more than half (55%) of consumers feel the government isn’t clear in how it uses technology and digital services for its citizens. So much so that less than one in five (19%) trust government to improve the ‘personal level of digital literacy’. Despite it being widely adopted for digital ID verification, there is no clear consensus when it comes to consumer faith in government data usage – one third feel comfortable with it, one third don’t and one third simply don’t know yet. 

To move forward, something must change. Governments need to demonstrate they can not only be trusted with consumer data but that they will use it to positive ends, not just to impose more taxes or restrictions, while consumers need to know what happens to their data – the majority of which isn’t personally identifiable to them – and feel confident it is being handled securely and sensitively. 

The spur for change 

Which brings us to the billion-Euro question – how? Unlike the private sector, governments have no similarly disruptive ‘competitors’ to provide the spur for change. The impetus must therefore come from within, responding to citizens’ demands. The research revealed the significant steps government and industry need to take to ensure consumers are fully onboard with their role in sharing data to drive the possibilities of a digital-first world. The majority (59%) of the public are increasingly concerned about the security of their online digital footprints, three-quarters (71%) are worried about the role technology plays in the spread of misinformation and just 10% of consumers feel businesses and governments are clear enough on the technologies they use and how they use them.​​ 

Building public understanding of data uses and new technologies to boost trust is essential: and the two can’t be separated: building trust relies on increasing understanding to enable people to judge for themselves what is or is not worthy of that trust while delivering projects of value with tangible results. A good example where governmental digital progress is working is connectivity in rural areas – which has become a big issue as social mobility has become an increasingly vital economic barometer. In the UK, the government’s ‘Levelling Up’ campaign is predicated on the ability to connect people away from major city hubs. Our research found that 70% of consumers agree that connectivity in rural areas must improve for a country to truly be considered digital. 

Re-engineering public sector organisations 

From improvements to healthcare, creating more effective energy networks, reducing the cost of public services, and creating a more sustainable environment for all – appropriately used data can be an immensely powerful force for governmental change. But right now, what people really care about is record patient waiting times, sky-high energy prices, cost of living pressures, and mothballed government projects. The disconnect is obvious but for technology’s potential to act as a force for good and that must change.  

To create a perpetual cycle of change and improvement through citizen data, governments must at least get the wheels turning in the right direction first. That isn’t going to happen with small changes – it’s about re-engineering the way the public sector deals with data. 

If that’s something you think VMware can help with, please contact me at jmurat@vmware.com 

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