Digital successes in the public sector

There are digital successes in the public sector: we should build on these rather than focussing on failures of the past
Digital successes in the public sector
Aug 8th 2018

It’s tempting to be negative when talking about digital technologies in the public sector. There’s a perception that the public sector is living in the Dark Ages when it comes to digital. There is seldom a conversation about technology in the public sector without someone bringing up the oft-quoted stat that the NHS remains the world’s largest purchaser of fax machines[1], with maintenance costs estimated at over £4,000 per year per Trust[2]. Mention any ambition for large-scale projects, and you can guarantee that the abandoned NHS National Programme for IT will enter into the debate.

By recycling these popular anecdotes, factoids and apocryphal tales, we’re ignoring the incredible digital successes that exist today within the public sector. At this year’s NHS Confed, NHS Digital’s Cleveland Henry led a breakout session that covered exactly this. Some of the programmes described should give us all reason to be proud of progress to date, as well as excited about what the future holds.

Take the NHS Spine for example. Operating across the country, this joins together 23,000 healthcare IT systems in 20,500 organisations[3].  At the last count, approximately 250,000 users access the Spine at any one time, and it handles 3,000 messages per second.  That’s more than four times the average load on the UK’s entire debit and credit card transaction system[4]. These numbers are impressive, and it’s worth also considering that the NHS undertook a successful transition to Spine 2 in 2014, using only in-house expertise and a number of smaller SMEs, rather than outsourcing the whole project to a large supplier.

Another example. In switching to NHSmail 2, the NHS successfully completed the largest single-tenancy email migration ever undertaken. 1.1 million accounts were transferred, and it now processes almost 250 million emails every month, with 870 million potentially unwanted messages stopped by virus and spam filters. These are statistics and a scale of activity that any multinational corporation would be proud of!

Digital successes also extend beyond the NHS.  For example, the Child Protection – Information Sharing project is in the process of connecting 152 local authorities and 1,200 unscheduled healthcare settings in England. Currently these organisations use more than 75 different computer systems, making sharing of crucial safeguarding information a challenge. To date, the project has successfully ensured 72% of local authorities and 65% of healthcare settings are live, with data held on over 130,000 children[5].  This is facilitating communication across organisational boundaries and helping to protect vulnerable children.

These are just three large-scale examples of successful digital projects. There are many other success stories, ranging from small local initiatives to nationwide projects. So why aren’t we sprinkling these anecdotes and examples through our discussions of public sector digital experiences? At the very least, they should provide a clear counterbalance to the apocryphal and high-profile failures that presently set the context for so many discussions.

In designing the public sector of the future, we should therefore be asking ourselves – what has worked before, and how can we replicate it? If we learn from these established successes, rather than focussing on past failures, we can and will build a digitally-enabled public sector that we can all be proud of.

Stefano Palazzo is a Principal Consultant at 2020 Delivery.



[1] DeepMind Health, Independent Review Panel Annual Report, July 2017

[2] Huffington Post, 11th June 2018, NHS struggling to keep up as it holds on to thousands of fax machines