There’s a lot of buzz across governments in Australia at the moment about digital transformation.
What this commonly refers to is taking current government services and systems and redeveloping them as digital solutions based on Agile and Lean approaches, principles and methodologies to make them far easier to use and manage.“Institutionalise evolution … embed evidence-based testing and iteration into every approach, and constantly evolve to remain up-to-date with community needs and expectations.”
Users are placed at the centre of the experience and extensive evidence is collected and used to direct development, rather than the whims and beliefs of “Highly Important People” — the decision-makers and developers themselves, who are rarely the actual end users.
But let’s speak frankly — the need for digital transformation means that government has failed.
Transformation of any form becomes necessary when individuals or organisations have not evolved as their environments evolved.
These organisations have been left behind by changes in technology, social culture and thinking, stuck in a past age due to internal factors such as their culture, structural rigidity, leadership beliefs and lack of resources. External factors such as the legislative frameworks they’re required to follow, or their local environment (like ancient species who survive in one small precarious niche) can also have held them to a specific form or slowed their speed of adaptation.
No-one today talks about Google having to digitally (or otherwise) transform, or even organisations like Microsoft (who has faced transformation in the past — particularly in their internet pivot fostered by Bill Gates).
These organisations have designed their cultures and systems around evolution, meaning they can constantly reinvent themselves as technology and social expectations change, avoiding the need to make rapid and painful transformations.
When charisma fails
So taking digital transformation as a painful and rapid process fostered from failure, what happens once government has digitally transformed?
There’s four primary outcomes I see: failure, reversion, stasis and evolution.
Failure is self-explanatory. The digital transformation fails (due to internal resistance or external strictures) and government tosses out the concept as unworkable. This isn’t really likely given the enthusiasm and passion of the people working in government to make it happen.
In the reversion case, which I have personally witnessed in government a number of times, the digital transformation occurs to a greater or lessor degree, led by talented and passionate people. Then those people begin to disperse onto other things, leaving behind a group of individuals who prefer to maintain and support rather than innovate and reinvent.
These individuals don’t have the passion or charisma to ‘maintain the rage’ for the transformed approaches and gradually, as external and internal demands mount and political ‘realities’ creep in, the transformation work stops and slides backwards.
Come back a few years later and the digital transformation spirit is all gone, with many agencies having reverted to “how they’ve always done things”. Innovation remains illusive and digital transformation is regarded as a fad that has now passed.
This can particularly occur where organisations are well-insulated from competition or outside pressures (such as competing for staff or resources).
It’s the worst case in my view, as not only the fruits of digital transformation are lost, but the process is seen as a failure, leaving governments less inclined to fund future attempts to turn the ship of state onto a new course. Citizens are left frustrated and minimising their engagement with government – unable to express their will electorally, as no elected party can really promise they’d be better at making the necessary changes.
A job half-done
In the third case, stasis, again the digital transformation is successful to a lessor or greater degree. Then, as people move on or burn out, again their places are taken by people with less enthusiasm or experience in the process.
While the gains of the digital transformation mean that these changes stick, permanently shifting how government operates, agencies see their job as done. They’ve digitally transformed – project finished. With few people left to drive the process, the culture of transformation doesn’t stick on the rest of the public service, who continue to maintain their current cultures, which are largely conservative and resistance to ongoing change.
Funds get shifted into other areas, or to maintaining completed transformation work. Innovation and transformation still occurs, but it is pushed out of the limelight by new priorities and gradually recedes back into the corners of organisations (where it started) where it doesn’t cause significant disruption or risk.
Over a few years the pace slows to a crawl, government continues to function but loses its capability to evolve at the rate of the market and community. The culture, while maybe more open to innovation, largely remains the same as before the digital transformation project began.
Five or ten years later, suddenly government finds itself well behind in meeting citizen needs and using modern technology and has to consider a new transformation process to get back on track.
In my view this is the most likely case — it’s hard to make sustained changes to the culture of large organisations (such as the public service) without a concerted long-term effort and complete alignment of leadership.
It’s easier for most people to think of digital transformation as just another project rather than a process and as having a fixed end point when agencies will have digitally transformed, rather than reworking their structures, funding models, legislative frameworks and embedding performance indicators that favour ongoing evolutionary change.
This scenario has been repeated periodically in government over the years with a succession of major change programs.
While government may regard this scenario as a success as “outcomes of the project were met”, it is essentially a failure. While short-term changes occurred, the nature of the agencies themselves fundamentally hasn’t, leaving them unable or unwilling to continue evolving in order to avoid the need for any future transformational projects.
Essentially in this scenario government is simply chasing its tail, institutionalising its failure to evolve as a series of costly transformational projects that can be more disruptive and damaging in the long-term.
Lasting the test of time
The last scenario, my preferred one, involves evolution.
In this case government not only is successful in meeting the objectives of its digital transformation, but also removes the need for any future transformational projects by reinventing its own structures, cultures and frameworks to bake evolution into the genes of agencies.
Agencies no longer follow a “wait until it breaks” approach to services, systems and policies, but institutionalise evolution, constantly observing the market and citizens, embedding evidence-based testing and iteration into every policy, program, service and IT approach, and constantly evolve themselves to remain up-to-date with community needs and expectations.
This scenario is a true transformation — not only of government services, but of government culture at every level. It renders future transformation unnecessary and removes the constant attempts agencies make at rearranging deck chairs or spending huge sums on failed projects that characterises today’s public service.
If you’re going to invest in transforming government then invest in transforming government, not just playing around the edges as a project that is repeated again and again over time.
Government needs to move the needle permanently, not simply rev the engine a few times — transform into an evolutionary organisation that is closely attuned to community needs, rather than a sloth capable of short bursts of speed to catch up with the tail-end of the crowd.
I salute the work of everyone currently involved in transforming government — digital or otherwise — to be more agile, lean and evolutionary.
As you work consider what you want your legacy to be — a moment in the sun or a lasting transformation.
No one person can do this alone.
However if we all share the same long-term vision of what comes after digital transformation for government – a new evolutionary state where agencies and the public service can self-manage their ongoing adaptations and growth to meet community needs, without periodic injections of a “transformation project” — we might just be able to shift the needle a little further in the right direction and avoid repeating the past in an endless cycle.