Why can’t government work more like a business?
It’s a familiar gripe. Variations on this meme are common whenever government is perceived as wasteful or unpleasantly bureaucratic. Which is to say, it’s a question on everyone’s mind every time they go to the local drivers’ licence authority.
Others have thoroughly answered this question from a general perspective, citing the difference between social good and monetary profit, heightened standards of accountability needed in areas such as law enforcement, and pointing out that businesses aren’t necessarily perfectly efficient or user friendly anyways.
But what about digital transformation? Digital transformation promises that any organisation can dramatically reduce costs, get things done faster, and create better experiences for users. Surely in this area the similarities between the public and private sector outweigh the differences? Shouldn’t public sector officials be able to follow the same digital transformation playbook as their private sector counterparts?
The answer is mostly “yes”, but there are some important areas where the answer is definitely “no”. In this piece we’ll explore three topics: the different role of technology disruption in the private and public sectors, the difference between digital consumers and digital citizens, and we’ll review an agency that has struck the perfect balance between “like a business” and “for the public good”.
In the private sector, digital transformation and disruption are closely linked. Companies often need to transform because a new breed of business has entered their territory with a new technology, and the incumbent could be forced out. The fear of becoming irrelevant through a failure to transform keeps many CEOs awake at night.
Digital transformation in the private sector is often defensive — it’s about keeping yourself in business. However, in the public sector, this thinking should be reversed. Public sector leaders should be looking at digital transformation and asking: is there a disruptor technology out there that would eliminate the need for our agency to provide a given service?
Microfinance organisations (like Kiva) have shown the viability of providing economic development services without requiring direct public sector involvement. AirBnB and Uber have enabled peer-to-peer provision of services that previously required high degrees of government regulation. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has reduced the United States government’s need to support space exploration.
In these examples, the challenge for leadership in the public sector wasn’t how to transform their own organisations, but rather, how to let go of their remit through partnerships with private sector disrupters. This means that digital transformation and disruption in the public sector is as much a challenge of policy and politics as it is one of technology.
The first question public sector transformation leaders should ask themselves is the last question that private sector leaders would ever ask: how can I use this technology to take myself out of business?
Digital citizens ≠ digital consumers
Often, when companies chose to transform, they have the freedom (and necessity) of changing what they sell and whom they sell it to. Transformation is often driven by a need to replace an ageing client base with a younger one, a poorer client base with a richer one, etc.
Businesses are free to choose which consumers they want to purchase their products, and which they will ignore. By making these decisions, companies can use transformation to achieve dramatic cost savings, raise (or lower) the price of the products, and acquire (or abandon) new markets.
When the choice is about prioritising the needs of one set of consumers over another, and it’s a business making the choice, that’s fine. The challenge for transformation in the public sector is that choosing one set of citizens to serve over another is often illegal, immoral, or both. If the department of education announced that it had developed an entirely new way of teaching math that saved 50% of cost, but the new service wouldn’t be offered to boys, that would be an entirely unacceptable outcome.
The challenge with digital transformation is that sometimes this is precisely what can happen — even if just by accident. While more and more people are using the internet at home and on their phones, it’s not the case that everyone is comfortable using it to access public services that they may depend on. Agencies who look to make cost savings by transferring the bulk of their support and access online may inadvertently be discriminating against citizens who prefer not to access services digitally.
The fundamental difference between a citizen and a consumer is that a citizen has the right to access a service as they choose, while a consumer does not. When considering digital transformation, public sector leaders must ask: how can this technology improve service access for everyone? And business leaders must only consider the needs of consumers they find profitable.
Who’s doing it right?
Getting public sector digital transformation right requires two things:
- A partnership-oriented approach to embracing disruption; and
- A focus on inclusiveness of digital citizenship.
One agency has scored high marks on both criteria: Tourism Australia. Tourism Australia started making big steps along the digital transformation journey in 2014, and has made splashes with the relaunch of Australia.com in 2015, and the launch of a virtual-reality campaign focused on Australia’s beaches and coastal regions in 2016. The results: record setting years for number of travellers, total visitor spend in Australia, and number of jobs in the tourism sector.
The global travel industry has been highly prone to disruption, with “the extraordinary extent of automation and variable pricing of everything from hotel room to airline seats to media impacting the very essence of the industry”. Ensuring that Australia is continuously positioned to benefit from these disruptions has been a key area of focus.
However, developing world-class technology solutions in house is not always feasible despite the agency’s considerable budgets. The solution? A focus on partnerships with private sector companies who have the technology and positioning to amplify Tourism Australia’s mission.
For example, last year Tourism Australia brokered a landmark partnership with Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, securing unique positioning for Australian travel offers on Alibaba’s new travel booking portal. More recently, Tourism Australia launched a partnership with camera company GoPro, which will result in a GoPro sponsored athletes filming exploration of Australia’s iconic destinations. The partnership focus in the technology space was summarised by chief technology officer David Rumsey in 2015:
“At Tourism Australia, partnerships are key, particularly in my area: technology. If I haven’t got a good partner then I’m not going to be able to deliver what I need to deliver.”
The vast diversity of tourism activities available across Australia is both a blessing and a curse for digital transformation. Because Tourism Australia has a social mandate to represent as many different operators and localities as possible, designing a digital presence that is both engaging to use and rich with information is challenging.
To meet this challenge, Tourism Australia invested in web technologies that enable large-scale management of information and images, and a user experience on Australia.com that makes it highly engaging. The site presents information from thousands of operators throughout Australia, and users from around the world have found the redesigned site more engaging than ever.
Digital transformation of Australian government is still in it’s early stages. Taking a commercial view of cost benefit analysis is certainly an important part of managing successful public sector digital transformation.
However, agencies will need to continue to ask themselves two questions that businesses never would: how can I use this disruption change or reduce my agencies remit?; and does this transformation help me be more inclusive of the needs of all digital citizens?