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Public sector CIOs must prioritise data compatibility

If you are in the middle of a transformation exercise, how do you ensure data compatibility while you are switching systems?

Public sector CIOs must prioritise data compatibility

The UK public sector is under major scrutiny at the moment due to some recent high-profile incidents and there remains ongoing concern about organizations being able to continue providing essential frontline services when budgets are so constrained. It is no surprise that this scrutiny is putting public sector CIOs under intense pressure, as they must balance the need for cost efficiency against demands for innovation to improve citizen services, writes Patric Mure, Director UKI – Existing Business, Unit4

In our State of the Digital Nation 2023 study, which looked internationally at the major issues affecting the public sector, there was a clear desire to innovate. When asked what the priorities would be if CIOs could design their organizations’ processes from scratch, access to real-time data and reporting (29%) came out on top. It was a bigger priority in the UK (31%) and Canada (33%), than in the rest of the world, as well as being the top priority in Sweden (29%).

Senior decision makers globally offered more specific insights on why access to real-time data is so important. Finance respondents, for instance, said their priority would be focus on predictive analytics to allow for better and quicker workforce planning and forecasting (29%), while HR suggested better oversight of expenditure, income and budget to manage the cost of services (33%) as their primary focus. IT decision makers would also like to have the ability to connect and share data with other departments and services (29%). In all these scenarios, having access to real-time data is essential.

See also: NHS data strategy lauded for "rare willingness to move beyond aphorisms"

However, to make real-time analysis possible, data compatibility is a pre-requisite. Without access to a single, accurate picture of all the data across the organization, decisions will be based on incomplete information. 

To achieve data compatibility, the public sector needs to modernize existing IT systems. Streamlining these will help to drive efficiencies and, more importantly, it will help to create data consistency. It will enable any new application to exploit the rich data sources thanks to a single, accurate view of all the available information. Without that single view, these organizations are at risk of making poor decisions that could impact the delivery of services or add costs for the taxpayer. This is why data compatibility should be at the top of every public sector CIO’s priority list.

Prioritizing data compatibility

In our study, there is clear unease about data compatibility. We ran the same study in 2021 where 53% of respondents globally said that data is compatible across some applications, indicating there is no duplication of data entry or transfer required in these cases. In 2023, only 35% agreed with this statement. Even more starkly, only 16% globally in 2021 believed there was a need for wholesale improvements in data compatibility. That figure rises to nearly a third globally in 2023 (29%), and to 41% in Canada and 35% in the UK. There is also major concern among central government respondents internationally, with 43% saying there is a need for wholesale improvements.

It is no surprise then that State of the Digital Nation respondents are adopting data management tools, with 52% already doing so and 34% intending to. This is an even higher priority in the UK (64%), ahead of adopting real-time reporting tools (49%) and cloud migration (49%). Internationally, it is also the top priority for central government (51%) and healthcare and emergency services (62%).

Of course, having the tools in place to enable real-time analysis is only part of the jigsaw. There is another challenge to consider: if you are in the middle of a transformation exercise, how do you ensure data compatibility while you are switching systems?

The first priority is to have a robust data strategy in place prior to any transformation. This includes adopting a standard data model This should be integral to the overall transformation strategy as it means that when any application is interrogating the data, it will do so in a consistent manner. In contrast, if you look at data compiled from various applications in isolation, you may end up distrusting what the data is saying. This could lead to tinkering and customizations to ensure applications talk to one another which only adds to the complexity – and could very likely lead to delays in delivering transformation.

If your applications comply with this standard, it will make interoperability between applications easier and, ultimately, make it possible to create a golden record. This is critical when public sector bodies collaborate with nonprofit organizations. For example, if you are supporting a vulnerable person, it may require input from mental health services, housing and social care professionals and benefits providers. This requires data sharing to create a single view of the individual’s health and wellbeing. Without that information, the individual may be put at risk or potentially receive ineffective services.

Interoperability will also aid compatibility, as it will make it easier to use analysis tools, like financial planning and analysis (FP&A), for interpretation and measurement of the cost and impact of public services. it’s important not to use different tools, which use various ways of measuring impact. If you are consistent in what and how you measure from the outset, it will ensure greater visibility of performance against key performance indicators (KPIs). Of course, if KPIs are to be effective, they too must be standardized and measured consistently throughout the lifecycle, whether that is contract to payment of suppliers or from recruitment to exit of employees.

Finally, data security and secure connectivity are key to enabling data compatibility. It is essential to be confident that data is not compromised to avoid misinterpretation. This becomes more complex as public sector bodies merge and demerge, but robust interoperability will give an organization greater confidence in data integrity. If information can be protected, it will engender more confidence among users and allow the data compatibility that is key to modernising public services.

See also: Botched ERP migration costs CEO his job, company €25m