Opportunities for GIS in the Public Sector in Troubled Times
The UK government has recently discussed austerity measures, potentially at a scale not seen before. The worst-case scenario here is a 40% reduction in budgets. Now, I’m pretty sure that the government is playing the ‘throw in your worst case deal, then withdraw to the middle ground which looks better’. Probably something around the 25-30% mark is more likely. Having said that, even this kind of figure is a massive amount. In any government organisation that isn’t ringfenced (and that’s everything bar Health and Oversees Aid), that’s going to have a huge impact. Organisations can weather a 5-10% reduction in natural wastage, but 25% is going to be difficult.
Inevitably this is going to result in staff reductions. I myself have been a little unfortunate in all of this, because of the result of a decrease in the amount of work I’m doing. And it’s not nice that these are real people that are going to suffer as a result of it – blame whoever, politics aside, it’s going to hit real folk.
How does GIS fit into this? Well, as the government seeks to reduce overall IT spend, we’ve got to consider ways that GIS can be of benefit. So much GIS work depends upon public sector orders, that if we’re not careful, it will become another inevitable casualty of the cutbacks.
If we’re wise, it could be seen to be one of the areas that provides benefit to the change process. I can see this in a number of ways.
Sadly, as people are removed from their positions, we’re going to see a dependency on automation of labour. This is where such things as data validation are going to be crucial. Processes, which were performed by manual cast-eyes and Access database manipulation, will need to be replaced by automated tasks based upon minimal human interaction. In GIS world, this is where government needs to start thinking about using Spatial ETL or Data Validation products to ensure that this happens. It’s also about convincing the sector that data quality and automation are worthwhile investments for reduced costs downstream – longer terms costs are driven down. Cost benefit analysis on FTEs vs licences will have to be executed. Again, potentially it’s ‘not nice’, but an inevitability of where we’re at, at the moment.
Hosting & sharing
The government g-Cloud is gaining profile, and for good reason. As there is the move to more centralised hosting and data storage, there are opportunities for cost reduction based on reduction of numbers of IT teams. Again, it’s a regretful place where we’re at, but there are opportunities to rationalise systems into secure multi-hosting of government systems. In the GIS world, this may provide advantage in data sharing, where seemingly disparate government data holders have their data physically close, which should push data sharing even further. It also forces organisations, who themselves have physically disparate hosting, to think about how to consolidate their own infrastructure space. This does give rise to network speed issues (particularly with the transferral of local data), but the overall benefits should outweigh the disadvantages. Equally, non-functional requirements type-risks are moved to the host and away from the government department themselves.
This one will require a mindset shift. IT teams within the public sector are under threat by this, where they will no longer be responsible for ‘their own patch’. Hosting providers may take the ‘best of breed’ IT staff from the public sector to aid them in transition.
This one is a threat to the established GIS providers themselves. As there becomes a general drive toward Open Source, where the model is that the government encourages collaboration across the sector to contribute to the better functionality of systems, there will be a reduction in the number of licences of software from the traditional vendors. And that’s where they have to keep one step ahead. In the same spirit as the NHS moving towards bulk buying to get drug prices down, there will no doubt be the same move in the public sector on GIS licensing. Moreover, there will also be the notion that the public sector can shape the direction of Open Source software, as similar functionality requirements across government organisations can be implemented by one body, for the benefit of many.
In many ways the idea that cost reduction should be achieved by a move to Open Source, rather than reducing staff numbers, should be seen as a priority. Where there are Open Source alternatives, they should be considered, rather than reducing staff numbers operating an at-cost solution. Open Source isn’t free, but I’d personally sooner reduce licence costs than have people lose jobs.
All these cost-reduction initiatives are occurring at the same time as regulation, particularly from the direction of the EU, gets stepped up. Again, this comes back to the notion that there is a requirement on data quality and consistency in the face of reduced manpower – and hence, the need for better automation. In this case, cost-benefit analysis has the third dimension of mitigating reasons, where the obligatory requirements will need to be fulfilled by the least expensive route.
Re-learning the benefits of GIS
Within the private sector, GIS has been used many years to optimise. How much optimisation has actually been done in government? How much GIS work goes on in the public sector to, for instance, optimise delivery routes of drug deliveries? How much has been done to ensure data capture is as accurate as possible for all, and not just fit-for-purpose for one user? Should the public sector take lessons from the private sector in how GIS can actually be useful to make things easier, better, and cheaper? I certainly think so. It’s my experience that the profit motive can ensure that GIS is used to ensure efficiencies in systems – after all, that’s how many GIS sales in the private sector are made: ‘I’ll show you how my GIS can save you money’. Maybe we need to focus on that: how GIS is an enabler to streamlining, not something that itself should be streamlined.
What about staff?
What about the guys that are no longer employed? Potentially, up to 40% staff cuts is huge. The government is hoping that existing staff re-organise into smaller, private units, that can be called upon to perform the work that is still required – albeit for less, and delivered in a more agile way. Perhaps this will be the legacy of the cull – ‘reluctant entrepreneurs‘ – who have been forced into the position to keep going, but not for the country to lose their knowledge.
It’s a changing world, and certainly not for the best at the moment. If you’ve been involved with the public sector you’ll know it’s a worrying time – the human cost of the recession has probably not hit yet. The best that GIS can do is to reshape itself into something that provides a more streamlined method of operation, and where – in a world of reduced budgets – costs are reduced by using GIS in a smarter, shared, collaborative way.