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  1. Spotlight on Policy
30 April 2021updated 08 Sep 2021 7:18am

Covid-19 is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the UK’s public sector

The public sector is helping lead the way in the UK’s recovery from Covid-19

By Peter Kelly

Covid-19 has been unchartered territory for government and public service organisations across the UK. Overnight, they were forced to make rapid and far-reaching decisions to protect vital services and keep citizens safe and connected during the crisis. 

The collective response has been universally impressive, as organisations have embraced change and innovation to keep our vital public services going.  While the public sector remains focused on serving and protecting people, it is also now exploring where investment will be needed to build on these changes for generations to come. 

An important part of this legacy is innovation. After the toughest of years, Covid-19 has catalysed digital adoption across the public sector, leading to years of progress in months or weeks. 

These changes were built out of necessity, but their impact will be long-lasting. As the vaccine rollout continues to gather pace and the UK looks towards bouncing back from Covid-19, public sector organisations have an opportunity to build a positive legacy out of the crisis. 

We recently partnered with the Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr) to explore how continued investment in digital technology will power growth and positive change across the UK over the coming decades. 

It has highlighted enormous potential for the public sector to invest and grow, improve services and provide confidence that we can build a lasting recovery for our nation, our economy and society.   

Covid-driven digital change could transform the UK economy over the next 20 years

Recently, we published the findings in our report, The £232 billion opportunity: How Covid-driven digital change could transform the UK economy.   

It shows that continued investment in digital technologies – across our public and private sectors – could add £232 billion to the UK economy by 2040. That’s a boost of similar scale to the current GDP of Finland or South Africa. 

The transformation of the combined central and local government, health and education sectors alone could add £75 billion, and potentially more, to the UK economy. 

Continued growth in digital change will create gains that can be reinvested in public infrastructure, people and skills, and further innovations in technology. 

This will positively impact all of us. It will drive output across organisations and could create new opportunities for public- and private-sector collaboration. 

There are three key trends at the heart of this growth opportunity, which are changing the way we work and deliver vital services. 

1. Digital delivery of services: These have already begun to transform people’s interactions with public services; through virtual delivery of primary healthcare, digital courtrooms, or computer aided education. Increased adoption of these types of technology will bring better efficiencies and economies of scale that can add value to our national output.

2. Flexible working: More remote collaboration between teams and different organisations will allow projects and operations to run virtually into the future. It will lead to more innovation in how we collaborate, create more efficient processes, and provide better remote support for staff, helping to ensure better work-life balance.

3. Richer data for analytics and artificial intelligence solutions: More use of digital processes means more data, which can provide real-time intelligence that can be applied to the planning and delivery of public services, from town planning to the co-ordination of health and social care in the community. This will help workers make better decisions, and free them up to focus on tasks that are of value to the people who need it. 

Together these could create a potential £32 billion boost to UK GDP, and even more, by 2040. 

Why UK communities need local authorities to be investing in digital change   

At Virgin Media Business, we’re working with local authorities across the UK, helping them to embrace technology and deliver programmes that make cities and regions better and more inclusive places to live and work. 

In our special report, Why UK communities need local authorities to always be thinking digital, we have interviewed our customers across the nation – providing real-world examples of the potential impact for public sector workers and those who live in their cities and regions.

During the first national lockdown, Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) took huge strides to tackle the digital divide in its communities. Spearheaded by Mayor Andy Burnham, its Digital Blueprint set out the region’s ambition to be a world-beating, inclusive, digital-first city. From connecting volunteers with vulnerable people in need, to providing help kits to students at risk of digital exclusion, Covid-19 catalysed the roll-out of the strategy and reaffirmed the importance of public- private sector collaboration in creating a more balanced and inclusive society.

Edinburgh Council focused on how digital technology could help its staff prioritise helping local citizens. It automated the clearance process for landlord applications, processing 400 applications in three hours instead of the usual three weeks. This reduced the amount of high volume admin work, so that employees could focus on virtual face-to-face work with people, where empathy and judgement are crucial.  As the economic cost of the pandemic becomes clearer, there is a growing sense of urgency to ensure our public services rebound stronger.   

There is also a growing recognition that investment will continue to deliver impressive outcomes for public sector organisations and UK citizens, grow regions and transform the economy. 

This is a once-in-a-generation moment to transform our nation’s social and economic prosperity, for our people, regions and our communities across the UK.   

Peter Kelly is the managing director of Virgin Media Business

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