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Montag, 22.04.2019
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Low pay and a male-dominated sector must be tackled to help the NHS, police and councils bring in vital digital expertise

It has been almost a decade since the government pulled the plug on what would have been the world’s largest civilian computer system. The NHS IT system was meant to create electronic patient records for use across the health service in England, but ended up becoming known as the biggest IT failure ever seen. The project, finally abandoned in 2011, cost taxpayers at least £10bn.

That fiasco shows just how bad things can go – and how big the bill can be – when it comes to digital transformation across the public sector. But with the NHS IT system failure now a distant memory, the UK government has become a leading country in terms of digital innovation. The UK now ranks fourth in the UN’s e-government development index, which measures how countries are using technology to create sustainable, resilient societies.

Digital transformation is taking place right across the UK public sector. In central government, the Government Digital Service was formed in 2011; most councils are running digital projects to improve frontline services; and the NHS is to see a £487m boost in funding for technology.

“We have a major role to play in the government’s vision for technology in healthcare,” a spokesperson for NHS Digital told the Guardian, “and it is important for us to have the right skills and people to deliver these plans effectively.”

But there’s the rub. The UK’s ambitious plans require bringing in skilled professionals from an industry already facing a skills gap. The situation is exacerbated in the public sector, which continues to face funding cuts and pay pressures. One report from IT providers found that 40% of public sector organisations surveyed did not have the right skills in place to adapt to a digital transformation, while a 2015 survey from the National Audit Office survey also highlighted a widespread IT skills gap across the sector.

The lack of digital expertise can have serious consequences for public services. It was exposed as a systemic problem for police forces in England and Wales when a Commons select committee report in October 2018 found digital failings were letting officers down. A year-long enquiry into the sustainability of the NHS workforce in England, meanwhile, warned that as well as failing to recruit and retain healthcare staff, the NHS is failing to adopt technology in a strategic, well-planned way, with “piecemeal” implementation of vital digital systems.

“Without an appropriate workforce to support digital change, the NHS will not be able to make best use of digital technology any time soon,” says Sophie Castle-Clarke, senior fellow in health policy at the Nuffield Trust. She points out that the NHS is in direct competition with the private sector for many of the digital skills on which it increasingly relies. “Recruitment and retention is an on-going challenge due to uncompetitive rates of pay and the lack of clear career progression, for a workforce already in short supply.”

Gender imbalance in the tech industry plays into this, according to Alison McKenzie-Folan, deputy chief executive of Wigan council. “We need to do more to get young girls and females into the industry,” she says.

McKenzie-Folan and her council work with community projects and school programmes to encourage more girls to take an interest in Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths). “We’re trying to get the message out there about how important it is that we encourage and embrace girls to go into the industry,” she says. Having more women in senior roles would also help, she adds.

Pay also often comes up as an issue for recruiting tech professionals into the public sector. In one survey of public sector employees, 63% of respondents said pay was a key reason for them looking to change jobs.

But Andrew Cox, head of service transformation at Watford council, says low pay doesn’t deter everyone. “There will always be people who are about working for residents,” he points out.

Ultimately, a major attraction for working in the public sector is the tangible impact digital progress can have on people’s lives. “Technology roles are best placed to support widespread change,” says Rob Watts, people director at consultancy FutureGov. “You’re not creating for a niche consumer market but for everyone, working alongside committed and passionate people to impact thousands of lives.”

Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock has been keen to emphasise the vital role of digital development in healthcare. “Every major technological leap, from penicillin to vaccination to MRI, has meant more lives saved,” he said in a recent speech announcing a new programme for digital healthcare fellowships. “If we just made better use of today’s tech, we could save more people.”

McKenzie-Folan believes the government needs to shout about how fantastic it is to work in the public sector. “You’re working for communities, and residents and the public. You’re coming into a profession where you can improve people’s lives.”

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Autor(en)/Author(s): Naomi Larsson

Quelle/Source: The Guardian, 22.02.2019

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