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Workplace well-being, better career paths for civil servants and increased deployment of better public services are all potential upsides of the low code movement. But it needs to be implemented with care. Hitachi Solutions’ Ed Pikett reports from a gathering of digital, data and technology leaders each at different stages of integrating Power Platform and Low Code ways of working.

In March, I convened a group of Digital, Data and Technology leaders from across the government to discuss the benefits that Low Code, and specifically Power Platform, offers.

We had attendance from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Ordnance Survey, ICS (the digital data and technology provider to the Department for Energy Security & Net Zero), Department for Science Innovation & Technology, and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environment Agency. Each organisation is at a different stage of its Low Code Journey, albeit all of them are focussed on the adoption of Power Platform.

The various human, technological and organisational opportunities – and potential pitfalls – of using Low Code were on the table.

Low Code as an unblocker

What was immediately clear was how much everyone agreed on the potential for Low Code as a means of rapidly delivering value in an area that at times feels overly constrained through fear of failure.

It’s hard to avoid the opportunity presented by Low Code, and in particular for this audience, Power Platform: a suite of Low-Code tools developed by Microsoft empowering organisations to build custom solutions, streamline processes and drive innovation.

Empowering local problem-solving

The democratisation of problem-solving could potentially add much-needed velocity to a public service backlog that is eye-wateringly long. It could be a game-changer for the UK Public Sector.

We spent much of the discussion on the positives; that many small problems cause great pain and empowering Civil Servants to solve these both gives them accountability and helps oil the wheels of government molecule by molecule.

The skills and retainment upside

I’m always hesitant to view these developments through solely a technological lens. One attendee described how low code offers an entry point for staff into hard-to-reach careers. This is significant in a Civil Service that struggles to retain highly skilled workforces and is overly reliant on contractors and suppliers.

In my favourite moment of the session, a participant spoke with genuine passion about how working in a fusion team with a pro-dev, upskilling in low code had changed their entire outlook on work and delivered fresh opportunities that were previously not possible. It has made an immense impact on personal well-being and workplace happiness.

Low Code at scale

In addition to the benefits of communising product development, our participants spoke of the potential for low code at an Enterprise Level, enabling the potential for reuse and delivering efficiencies for common problems across government.

It can reduce workloads and manual tasks, enhance innovation and deliver efficiencies. So long as teams follow all the current best practice principles embedded within Government DDaT guidance.

These efficiencies can be further realised through automating workflows and in time (acknowledging most are not there yet) realising the benefits of AI, not to reduce headcount and replace jobs, but to deliver more expansive and improved public services.

The awkward middle

The challenge lies in the middle area – common problems that exist across government that could or should be solved at a community level.

Here is the need to strike the balance between local innovation and central governance. These need to be prioritised at a departmental level ensuring they align with strategic direction and public needs.

Weighing up the risks

Despite these incredible opportunities, like with any burgeoning area of technology, there are obvious risks. What normally follows an exercise of devolution, is a reduction in quality. Other challenges include:

  • Getting the balance between innovation and governance
  • Building trust between citizen developers and central DDaT functions
  • Solving the actual problem rather than being technology-led
  • Measuring performance and realising benefits

Product development is a team sport and there is a clear risk of citizen developers operating in isolation without research, design, analysis, content, data (I could go on) specialists collaborating towards a common goal.

There was firm agreement that often internal technology and data problems are only discovered once the creator of said problem has left an organisation, often leaving a plethora of applications and databases in their wake.

The need to build in shared data standards

Similarly, with the government gearing up in the AI space, now is the time to double down on data governance. We need to ensure we are using common interoperable data structures. We need to build on a sure footing that can enable future growth, not forgoing long-term gains for the lure of immediate success.

What became clear was the need to understand the problem, its scope and scale. There was alignment that there are thousands of problems that could and should be solved at a local level by an empowered workforce of citizen developers operating within the comfort blanket of a structured Centre of Excellence.

A broader conception of ‘efficiency’

Efficiency takes many forms. But perhaps now is a moment where the perception of, and reality of efficiency shows the greatest promise for the public sector.

I believe this should not be one that is viewed purely through the lens of reducing headcount and cutting costs. Rather, an efficiency that is grounded in enabling people to be better, to be more effective and to achieve more – because efficiency should be about value, not just cost.

Embrace the tech, but go carefully…

Low code offers an incredible opportunity to automate and integrate government, and to build a digitally astute, data-enabled workforce.

But it is still just a technology, and its misdirection and mismanagement could set public sector transformation back in equal measure to the opportunity.

Success will hinge on the level of investment in people, and in building trust between DDaT teams and problem or product owners. And whatever we do, think about the data.

If you’d like to attend our next low code session, please complete the form below.

Edward Pikett

Author Spotlight

Edward Pikett

Ed has dedicated his entire career to designing and delivering public digital services. He is an advocate of simplicity, transparency, and creativity, having spent over a decade in the Prime Minister’s Office, Cabinet Office and more recently as Chief Digital Officer for the Department for International Trade. He now leads and supports our central government function.