In 2018, the public sector balanced its usual mix of IT blunders, skills shortages, questionable political appointments and dubious interventions from the private sector with some promising investments in emerging technologies and open data initiatives, while keeping one eye on the political elephant in the room.
In 2019, our impending departure from the EU will play a decisive role in public sector IT developments.
The government will need to ensure that its IT systems can cope with any outcome of Brexit. Gartner analyst Neville Cannon believes this will significantly reduce the time and investment available for major digital initiatives, particularly in the case of a no-deal Brexit.
"If a deal's accepted that makes life much more straightforward for the government departments," he says. "Where existing reliance on European systems or integrations can take place then they're freer to start to develop and deliver the solutions they need to move the country forward as opposed to catch up with where they are now."
Skybox Security director Peter Batchelor expects Brexit to also drive a more mobile working environment in the public sector and force the government to develop IT systems that can handle changing staffing requirements.
"Brexit will lead to the increase in the number of UK central government employees as the government bolsters the workforce to cope with the additional demands of leaving the EU," he says. "This will need a significant amount of effort to provide new identity access management solution and clean up endless users that still exist on the IT systems but not on the payroll."
Forrester analyst Duncan Jones advises public sector clients around the world on IT procurement, and they all have the same problem: rules and regulations prevent them from selecting the best vendor for the task.
Jones worries that this will be an even bigger barrier in 2019 as agile software development becomes more common.
"As we're moving to much more agile development and being much more iterative, the public sector procurement process just doesn't work," he says.
"Many large private sector organisations struggle as well. They're used to relying on a competition based bidding process and that really doesn't work when you're trying to do agile development because you can't define up front what you want in enough detail to just have it bid out on a price basis. You're comparing vendors on different criteria.
"I think until the public sector gets that and abandons its obsession with competition, it's going to continue to have these huge failures that we see over and over again, where the requirements that are bid out turn out to actually not be what's required in the end. You never can predict before you start what you're going to end up with, and the public sector process kind of denies that reality."
Some governments abroad are challenging that procurement model. Jones points to the Netherlands as a promising example of a country that has started to recognise that competitive bidding isn't always the best approach, as sometimes long-term partners are required.
Procurement approvals there are now granted for a variety of reasons, and exceptions to the normal rules are made if they can be justified due to factors such as a lack of real competition or a need to prioritise long-term stability over price. However, Jones has little faith that the UK will be replicating the Dutch model in 2019.
"I don't see any sign that it's going to improve in the UK," he says. "There doesn't seem to be that will to change. There's an inherent resistance to change and the processes prevent change. They can't engage with consultants who will help them change because the sourcing process doesn't allow it.
"It's a catch 22 situation. I could convince a minister that I could help them transform the way they source technology, but then in trying to source my services, he wouldn't be able to do it. He'd have to put it out for bid and I would be undercut by somebody cheaper. They just can't change."
Jones feels the current procurement model could be particularly damaging to the successful adoption of software-as-a-service (SaaS), which will continue to gain popularity in the public sector.
"One of the problems with SaaS is the risk of lock-in, or at least the friction that builds up over time if you're using a particular platform for a long time," Jones explains. "I see a lot of naivety in sourcing. Failing to recognise that when the initial contract comes up for renewal, you're going to be in trouble unless you have an exit strategy sorted out.
"I think one warning about the growth of SaaS is that public sector procurement has to be a lot savvier in how to negotiate contracts and it has to realise that this is not about competition. If you sign a three-year contract with a vendor and that three years is coming towards the end, you can't rely on competition to negotiate. You've got to find some other way to negotiate."
There may be greater hope for change in the prevailing government contracting model. Jones' fellow Forrester analyst Paul McKay believes that the days of big outsourced IT contracts may be coming to an end.
"I think you're going to see much more atomic examples of government procurement looking to buy smaller technology projects or services that have much more tightly defined and clear business benefits ... These large IT programmes which failed to deliver on their benefits typically get a fairly rough ride in the public accounts commitment and also from the National Audit Office," he says. "I think you're going to see departments move away from that big bang model and try to look towards smaller-scale innovation."
The NHS, stung by the experience of the failed National Programme for IT, is already exploring small-scale innovations from the private sector that could gain traction organically than the traditional large IT programmatic approach.
Online consultations with doctors delivered by Babylon and Push Doctor recently became available on the NHS, but McKay anticipates a tough road towards widespread NHS adoption for private companies
"I think they're going to try but I think there are significant structural challenges to them doing that within the NHS," he says.
"The NHS is quite complicated from a procurement perspective, so I think for them to figure out what are the right people to talk to, it's going to be a very long hard slog for them because they're having to engage almost on a trust by trust basis.
"Yes, there's the NHS Digital organisation that they can try and get stuff through, but ultimately, things get implemented by local hospital trusts and primary healthcare trusts. They're going to try that but they're going to come up against stiff opposition, not just from management within the NHS but also from doctors."
Gartner analyst Cannon expects the public sector's move to the cloud to accelerate dramatically in 2019. His public sector clients used to ask whether they could or should move to the public cloud, but now the line of questioning has shifted to how they can do it.
This changing mentality has been driven by a growing belief that the public cloud is typically more secure than on-premise solutions and that the cloud can add the scalability and elasticity that departments need to quickly introduce new services for citizens.
"When we talk about cloud computing with the likes of the innovations from AWS, Azure and Google, it's way beyond just compute and storage," says Cannon. "It's around IoT gateways, it's around artificial intelligence, it's about all of these things, and about the additional services that they are able to provide on top, and giving people in government access to the best tools available."
Forrester analyst McKay echoes Cannon's thoughts: "I think you're going to see a lot more of a transition away from the idea that as a rule government departments and local public sector agencies should be making a habit of deploying these things internally - which involves a cost and skills that are required to do that - and pushing more of that out to the cloud and becoming more comfortable with the idea of using the cloud as a collaboration tool and an enabler.
"In the work I do with Microsoft from a security perspective they are certainly looking to help the public sector make the most of the investment that they have in their technology and you'll see that other cloud providers are also trying to do the same."
Exploring new technologies
The skills gap could be bridged by automation. Terry Walby, CEO and founder of RPA company Thoughtonomy, has high hopes that the public sector will become the leaders in AI and RPA adoption.
"We've already seen the benefits that intelligent automation is bringing to public services," he says. "As budgetary pressures become ever more severe, skills become in even shorter supply post-Brexit and demand continues to increase, there will be a marked shift towards digital labour as a way to drive efficiency and free up time amongst frontline staff.
"We expect to see public sector organisations operating a higher virtual worker: employee ratio than any other sectors. No longer the laggards, automation will see the public sector become pioneers within AI adoption."
He predicts that automation will be used to deliver joined-up public services, particularly within health and social care and policing, as organisations share best practices and standardise processes. He also expects new AI-focused roles to be created in senior government, including perhaps a minister for AI, to promote and scrutinise the technology as "we shift towards a hybrid human-virtual workforce".
Gartner analyst Cannon agrees that RPA and AI will be used in an expanding range of public sector applications.
"Expect to see more chatbots and service centres trying to get ahead of the curve and use these types of capabilities now to drive efficiency and release people for other activities," he says. "More and more is going to be supported by using some sort of SaaS model."
He has less faith in the near-term benefits of blockchain. Proponents of the technology argue that governments could use the technology as a centralised trust model, but Cannon believes that it largely remains a solution looking for a problem, even in the apparently promising area of digital identity management.
"Government has some specific uses around identity where an immutable record isn't necessarily the best thing," he says. "If you think about the witness protection programme, if you want to take somebody away who's involved in a serious criminal case and they need protection, then they need a new identity. You can't just reinsert that somewhere back in the chain. There are issues around that for government."
The growth of AI in the public sector will only work if staff have the required skills, which Forrester's Jones believes will be a challenge: "If you want to apply artificial intelligence techniques to a data set to come up with some insight, you probably can't hire the people yourself. You've to source them in. That's why the change in the sourcing process is so important, because you're trying to source rare skills.
"Enterprises have the same challenge. They have to source often because they can't hire the right people. And because these people are in high demand they can attract a premium price so if you're looking for the cheapest all the time or you're making a vendor compete with ten other guys for your contract, they're going to say I'm not going to bother. I can sell my people. It's my people that are the scarce resource. I can get more money elsewhere from a better customer."
The move to the public cloud will mean that there is also an increased demand for cloud computing skills, while the growing threat to critical national infrastructure (CNI) will need to be met by improved cyber security skills.
Kaspersky Labs expects that the next year there will be some occurring attacks on CNI, especially in retaliation to political decisions. Forrester's McKay predicts that the UK's defences will be hampered by a lack of security skills in the regulatory bodies that will be responsible for defending their sectors.
"As a nation, we've decided to take a sectoral-based approach to implementing that, so, for example, Ofgem is responsible for regulating utilities," he says.
"To date, those regulators have not had specific oversight of cyber security for the organisations that they regulate, so it's quite a new thing for them to be having to do this. And while of course the National Cyber Security Centre will be heavily supporting them with that, they're going to have to acquire some of their own cyber security skills and expertise in a regulatory capacity.
"And I think for the usual reasons that exist within the public sector around trying to get any form of technology workers from the private sector you're going to see them really struggle to acquire that talent because of the pay and the remuneration restrictions that exist in the public sector at the moment."
Jones advises IT managers in the public sector formulating strategies for 2019 to focus on the needs of users.
"Think of the citizen," he says. "Think what it is your group that citizens really care about and use that as the guiding principle.
"A lot of things that I've been talking about arise from policy for its own sake. We know that it's silly, but the politicians tell us to do it that way. The project ends up being a disaster, but it was a cheaper disaster than it would have been if we hadn't sourced it that way. No, actually, citizens want you to spend their money wisely, but they want you to deliver great software as well that makes it easy for you to engage with government organisations."
Cannon echoes the sentiment, adding that it's crucial to concentrate on the use of data for civic purposes.
"Focus on the data," he says. "Understand how the data can be used and shared between agencies. have those conversations with the citizens about the reuse of their data.
"Don't shy away from having the difficult conversations about how and what's required to join up government in order to deliver the commercial-grade interactions that citizens really want from government. We need to be responsive to the sensitivity and privacy issues and security issues, but equally, we need to be able to use that data to provide those evidence-based decisions and policies that everybody wants to see going forward."