UK Government: #BuildBackBetter


Resetting the risk dial – empowering the UK public sector to build back better.

Public sector organisations in the UK had to respond rapidly to the pandemic when lockdown was announced in 2020. Policy changes were issued in quick succession and departments had to scramble to implement new solutions safely and smoothly.

Deploying services at previously unheard-of speeds is only possible when organisations – and the people working within them – adapt at the same speed. Public sector organisations are already looking back over the last 18 months to examine how meeting the demand for rapid change shattered norms and disrupted usual ways of working to deliver results.

SAS recently invited a panel of people working at the frontline implementing new systems in the pandemic to discuss their experiences. They all had anecdotes of swift action and escalation of digitisation.  Our keynote speaker Jamil Qureshi and Nick Wallace from our partner Microsoft, both gave examples from the NHS.

  • To meet the rapidly changing demands of the pandemic, a London hospital moved an ICU from one floor to another. Where this kind of operational change would previously have taken ten months to carry out, the team completed the move in a matter of days.
  • To help the NHS onboard staff more quickly and ensure they were able to work, digital passports were implemented to accelerate identity, training and professional status checks. Streamlining the processes and digitising the system meant waiting time was reduced and more staff were able to get to work.
  • The NHS Business Services Authority processes 54 million prescriptions a year. 24 million are electronic, but 30 million still paper based and require manual keying by an operator. Streamlining the process through better automation, use of AI and ML, enabled them to scan, process, store and visualise prescriptions more quickly, increasing the efficiency of the system and ultimately improving patient outcomes.

If digitisation and streamlining of systems and processes happened more rapidly than would previously have been considered, what distinctive features of the public sector made this happen?

Setting aside self-interest

Previously, I worked in financial services before making the move to supporting UK government organisations, for me, culture is a key factor.  One of the main differences I see is how often you come across people with a refreshing lack of self-interest in the public sector. There’s a responsibility and sense of ownership that you just don’t see elsewhere. This mindset is critical for any project that involves data sharing across different departments. There’s always one party that stands to gain more than the others, so unless self-interest is set aside, a project just won’t get off the ground. In my opinion.

Obviously with GDPR in place, all organisations must ensure compliance. Government departments also have to meet their own obligations around data sharing, only using data for specified purposes. The UK public sector may be described as having an overly robust aversion to risk, but even within the necessary boundaries, the pandemic undoubtedly forced the UK government’s risk dial to move.

Focusing on outcomes

Strong leadership is necessary for successful transformation. When outcomes are deeply understood and communicated at all levels, smooth and rapid change is more likely. A common pitfall is only sharing internal business cases with a select few individuals within an organisation. The pandemic promoted an openness and transparency with information being shared widely because everything was changing rapidly. Where whole departments or organisations understand the strong business case behind necessary changes, you are more likely to have universal support and fewer blockages.

Similarly, for projects involving data and data sharing, ensuring the right mix of data scientists and data engineers are available to work with the owners of the business problems is essential. Freedom to collaborate inside the department, and across departmental boundaries when required, helps to speed up projects that would previously have taken longer to complete.

Resetting the risk dial

To maintain this pace across UK government departments, the pendulum has swung away from the risk minimisation position in place before the pandemic, to a position of risk optimisation.

HMRC changed overnight from a department that collected tax to one that paid out money. Tim East from HMRC explained.  With that task came the responsibility of protecting the flow of money going out against organised fraud and crime. The multiple schemes announced rapidly by the UK government, including the furlough scheme, eat out to help out, support for the self-employed and others, meant it was really important that HMRC developed new approaches to risking quickly.

Within a six-week period, new digital services were rolled out to customers. Risk assessment had to be updated repeatedly as the rules have changed during the pandemic. The department has faced a constantly high work rate just keeping things up to date. It. The whole period has involved sustained collaboration between stakeholders and demanded that outcomes are always clear for those involved so that they could develop the services quickly.

Moving towards a sustainable pace of change

Across the public sector, the ability to make effective change requires a continued focus on clear values and outcomes without reverting to a position where change is hampered unnecessarily by traditional approaches. Andrew Bolton from DWP Digital is passionate about this, he states that maintaining new ways of working will be essential to keeping his team empowered, “We’re still in decompression, but there are key learnings we need to build into our future ways of working.”

These lessons will be important not least because UK citizens now have extremely high expectations, having seen what’s possible. Managing these expectations and a realisation that perhaps not everything can be turned around quickly will need some careful handling. Internal customers and stakeholders within the public sector have also experienced how quickly teams can deliver interim measures and use best endeavours to deliver results. There is a danger this pace of change will be considered ‘business as usual’. Service levels and ability to deliver in the long term require some resetting of expectations.

What is clear is that maintaining a clear chain of command, focusing on outcomes and fostering the culture of commitment to public service will continue to empower the teams that delivered such exceptional results during the pandemic.

Embracing a culture of commitment to public service

Technology and systems are only part of the solution. Over the last 18 months, we have all seen and perhaps even experienced first-hand that it’s the people and the culture of the organisations that they work in that have really made a difference in the responsiveness and agility of public sector bodies.

While the pandemic may be a unique set of circumstances, the flexibility that is required in these organisations to meet unexpected situations needs to be maintained. Afterall, it is a vital part of the function the public sector is here to perform.

To listen to more around key transformational topics such as.

  • Reshaping communication with the citizen
  • Tackling citizen digital identity challenges across government
  • Responsible AI: vision, challenges, and opportunities for UK government
  • UK Government: Build Back Better

And more … watch here or visit or Search “SAS UK GOV”


UK Government: #BuildBackBetter with SAS. Tackling citizen digital identity challenges, deploying responsible AI and delivering solutions for Public Sector


About Author

Nicky Furlong

Director - Enterprise Government, SAS UK

Nicky is passionate about leading a team that helps public sector organisations to get the maximum value from their investments in analytics. Whether the aim is to prevent fraud, improve the experience of citizen interactions or streamline operations, Nicky believes every organisation can benefit from leveraging predictive analytics and the growing volumes of available data.

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