The public sector is part way through a significant period of digital transformation, with new digital capabilities being adopted by the Australian Public Sector (APS) every day. Yet this transformation is more than just a shift away from legacy systems to modern ICT applications.
Matt Watkins, Partner for Digital and Technology at Synergy Group explains how the technology landscape has changed, with new business-friendly technology such as intelligent automation platforms promising to deliver the next wave of service delivery and productivity improvements. And importantly, why now is the time for public sector organisations to consider a different approach to digital transformation – one that is based on adopting business-friendly platform-based technologies while concurrently educating the workforce to adapt to and trust the modern world of ICT.
A digitally enabled public sector
Matt has observed many technology trends during his years managing large scale digital-enabled transformation programs, including:
- A shift to cloud services and greater mobility – thankfully, the cloud is no longer an insecure option for delivering government services. In fact, citizens expect anytime, anywhere access with a high degree of personalisation.
- A convergence of ICT capabilities – the functionality of core systems and platforms has been converging, so we can do more with less systems. For instance, there are only so many ways one can do things like case management, service management, process management and workflow.
- A move to no-code or low-code platforms and the democratisation of IT – we have seen the rise of the citizen developer and the citizen data scientist, which is a good thing. This allows business areas to help themselves to their ICT needs, achieving a level of solution sophistication that previously needed a systems integrator to deliver it. For example, modern platforms like RPA, digital forms and simple workflow tools, service management tools, and cloud-based CRMs, can all now be configured and deployed quickly.
- A rapid pace of change – recent times have shown us that the pace of change is getting more rapid, and as a consequence, the need for rapid policy response has increased. Modern technologies allow business areas to be more agile, to adapt their ICT capabilities to their changing business processes, in short timeframes, which improves responses to those policy or environmental changes.
- A clearer focus on business processes – modern ICT platforms allow business areas to focus on what they know best: their business processes. By knowing the processes in and out, they can standardise and optimise before automating or digitising them.
- A greater focus on data – data governance and quality, data security, and the understanding that good data will power the future of ICT, especially applications driven by artificial intelligence (AI).
Matt says all of these trends allow us to imagine a future where we have an augmented APS workforce: one that can be built through bottom-up transformation, bit by bit, with enough top-down strategy and design to communicate intent without being a choke-hold on innovation.
We have seen the rise of the citizen developer and the citizen data scientist, which is a good thing.
The challenges of change
In all this, the role of ICT is to remove complexity for the business – to provision modern platforms in a way that can scale with demand and remain cost-effective, and provide a good user experience (whether for staff or citizens).
Now, if only it was that simple.
“I’ve been working the last year with one of our PS customers implementing one of these modern platforms, designing and implementing an operating model that allows the organisation to leverage the platform to maximise impact,” explains Matt. “And we’ve have had a number of confounding factors that could get in the way of success if we don’t design around them as part of our digital transformation strategy.”
For instance, there are governance, ethics and policy considerations.
“Thought needs to be given to transparency, integrity, and openness when implementing technologies like AI, but also the considerations of what to do with a portion of the workforce who may be displaced by the new technology. This deserves thinking and action up front.”
With recent reviews of the APS calling for an investment in improving the digital maturity of the APS workforce, Matt believes this should equally apply to both public servants as well as contractors.
“This needs to be an investment in education at a large scale, big enough to give critical mass to the digital skills we need for wide adoption of digital platforms.
“The augmented worker of the future needs to be as comfortable with modern work technology as we all are today using a smartphone. I also believe industry has a role to play to uplift the skills of their clients as they deliver so that at a minimum, you all know how to leverage the technology in your transformation, and at the outside you can build things yourselves.”
Matt also says the operating model of ICT organisations needs to be reviewed to support the delivery of modern technology.
“We have a history of delivering ICT capabilities in a fairly fixed service model, with prescribed processes, usually based on some form of plan, build, run and application-based services. I would not underestimate the need to focus on culture change in ICT organisations as well as educating staff on newer ways of delivering business-friendly, platform-based, ICT services.”
This is where ICT (both in-house and consultants) need to be an advisor to business, and the operating model needs to be adaptive – able to be tweaked to loosen some core processes.
“This will be essential in order to encourage and fast stream innovation, while guiding business on quality and standards,” says Matt.
“This needs to be an investment in education at a large scale, big enough to give critical mass to the digital skills we need for wide adoption of digital platforms.”
Another confounding factor is funding. In particular, how innovation and ICT investment is funded. Matt says there is a need for seed funding – perhaps a dedicated percentage of ICT operational budgets – to test new technologies and their potential benefits like a commercial organisation would, with no guarantee of success.
“We need to recognise that ICT capabilities are not static, they grow and improve all the time, and we want to be able to take advantage of that,” says Matt. “Therefore, we have a need for continuous investment in ICT, not just one-off cases to government.
“With COVID-19 we have seen a once-in-a generation investment released by government to support the economy. Imagine if some of that was put towards modernising public sector ICT, setting us up for the next 30 years of innovation and service delivery?”
Finally, to encourage a culture of continuous innovation, Matt suggests the APS needs to address the role of trust and its general appetite for risk.
“The current crisis has tested our collective risk appetite, to break what were work-norms and to take some risks in areas of ICT that were traditionally no-go areas for some. We pushed the bounds, and things were okay. Modern platforms are proven technology. They allow us to fail fast and cheap and iterate until we get to a successful outcome.”
And the good news? Teams in the APS can start the journey now, with a small transformation, a process, a team, a division, and then grow it from there. Where some industries have gone, the APS can follow, and we can learn from their experiences as early adopters and leap ahead in our transformation.
“I believe the time is right for the public service to be bold in its ambition, and through use of modern technology, make a once-in-a-generation shift towards a modern, augmented workforce.”