Public agencies are being challenged to perform better with fewer resources. For leaders of Australia’s public sector digital transformation offers a powerful way to rethink your agency’s role and how it operates.
My first hand experience working with government agencies, such as Service NSW, is that embracing digital allows change and releases energy and innovation. A digital approach creates a new paradigm within public agencies and departments and opens your staff to new and better ways of engaging with both internal stakeholders and citizens.
Digital these days means far more than just a web site. Yes, it certainly creates a modern, simpler, user-friendly way for citizens to interact with government. But it is the transformative aspects of digital that are arguably more profound, for government at large and agencies in particular.
If we look at the some of the countries most advanced in the uptake of digital in the public sector we can see that it builds a powerful two-way channel between governments and their electors. Connected communities are what we call these, and it is the combination of mobility, social engagement, and apps that is fuelling a new type of engagement between citizens and government.
Focus on users
A key principle of the digital approach is to focus on users, not government needs. This forces Ministers and their portfolio agencies to directly ask what are the needs of their citizens and stakeholders. This is not a native skill of traditional government. Whereas private firms have to address this need to stay in business, government agencies typically don’t have the same market mechanisms to focus their services and programs around.
In the digital world following the end-to-end journey of the citizen or customer is a powerful business intelligence loop, which quickly enables agencies to understand what is important. This direct feedback offers two distinct paybacks for government. It deepens insight into community issues and concerns and also enables agencies to collaborate with their users to develop programs and projects that have real impact.
In a digital and cloud empowered environment, this collaboration can be iterative. Beta and prototypes becomes an agency’s friend, enabling rapid roll out of solutions, while also changing the risk approach to failure.
In my experience, risk aversion within public bureaucracies is a major barrier to change. Taking an approach to service design that doesn’t ‘bet the house’ creates a solid environment for ‘safe’ innovation.
This is also true for Government Ministers. No longer do Ministers need to be the ones who have to come up with the answers. A collaborative approach that asks the community to engage in conversations around solutions to problems helps frame the public debate and source solutions.
It also gives a voice to many who traditionally don’t get heard in major government deliberations. Rather than getting drowned by social media noise it channels citizen ideas and concerns into a productive process.
This changes policy and program design from a “we know best” approach, opening government up to new ideas and empowers citizens to be active participants. The “Have Your say” portal run by the NSW government is a first rate example of this approach.
Using data to drive outcomes
I note with approval how the current Australian government has rapidly increased the data sets – a tenfold increase to over 5000 data sets – on the government portal data.gov.au.
These open data sets spur developers and businesses to think about opportunities to use the data in useful ways for the community.
This ranges from apps for real-time transport information to community policing apps that give police real insight into crime and prevention.
These are not just hypothetical scenarios. Vivek Kundra, the former CIO of the US White House and now Executive Vice President for Salesforce, set up the first central data collection site data.gov that underpinned a whole swag of policy development in the early days of the Obama Administration.
Kundra, who is in Australia this week speaking to government executives about digital transformation, says data literacy is another powerful by-product of embracing digital.
Other than specialised statistical bureaus, public agencies typically don’t have the skills to collect, interpret and act on data from their activities. Investment in digital projects will build the increasingly important skill of data science. Data science will push agencies to rethink their activities to focus on outcomes and solutions rather than just outputs.
The health sector in particular exposes the need for this capability. A focus on the well being of the population, rather than the activities that underpin this well being (e.g. emergency ward waiting times) opens up a far wider debate about how to apply resources. It also requires a more empirical approach to public policy making, and with it far greater transparency.
This leads to superior government results, rather than a system that focuses on processes and resource usage.
Cloud based applications, powered by a platform-as-a-service model is really where digital can really fast track an agency that is ambitious to embrace a new way of working.
One of the learnings from the last few years is that agencies should try to think of digital at an industrial level. Like an offshore oil well, the front end of an agency’s web service is going to be supported by a whole series of below-the-surface applications and systems. These need to be coordinated, integrated and automated.
The good news is these enterprise platforms have developed and matured over the last decade – and are available for use by agencies as a foundation to their digital technology stack.
These platforms also offer a framework to fast track application development, so that agencies can reboot their IT approach and adopt an agile methodology.
Rather than having to acquire all the required hardware and software licensing and then having to manage the on-going maintenance of applications, agencies now have a consume technology on a pay-as-you-go, platform-as-a-service basis.
The beauty of the cloud and platform model is it’s all managed by the provider and removes much of the project risk. It also ensures the platform is updated for security, accessibility and feature requirements.
It goes without saying that this frees up internal resources and capital expenditure, allowing agencies to focus on the actual community or agency problem at hand, rather than the technology.
Embrace start up culture
In the UK the Government Digital Service (GDS) has successfully taken on the culture of a start up. This has included embracing concepts such as “sprints,” “minimum viable project”, “beta updates” and other agile digital project management approaches.
By adopting the stance of a start up the GDS has avoided the earlier mistakes of gov 2.0, whereby well intentioned initiatives to embrace the web have failed to create the culture change we have seen in the commercial sector.
Possibly the most important gain governments and their agencies will see from embracing this type of start up mentality is that it opens government to alternative ideas and approaches to innovation — where collaboration is the norm. This breaks down the ‘fortress government’ approach and fuels a genuine partnership between public and private sectors.
To capture these gains government procurement models need to respond to these opportunities. For example the US Digital Service has focused on the need for US Federal agencies to adopt modern contract methods, which pays on deliverables and factors in time for research and prototyping. This enables product requirements to evolve as the service is being built, which is of course made possible due to the flexibility of cloud-based applications.
Over time this open approach to procurement creates a powerful ecosystem of developers and providers for government to use and draw from, avoiding the typical vendor lock in we saw in more traditional IT procurement processes.