Digital's day of delivery — not an IT upgrade, but an evidence upgrade

By Brian Lee-Archer

May 27, 2016

Digital government is an evolving concept, and definitions abound. They often focus on making government services more efficient by using internet-based delivery supported by mobile apps. But is digital government just about taking a few minutes less to fill out a form, or is it about creating public value for the consumers of government services and society as a whole? That is, does it really improve the effectiveness of government programs?

Digital definition

Such effectiveness is fundamental to the measure of a program’s public value. This brings me to what the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development says about digital government. IT-enabled modernisation across OECD member nations, including digital government, is a lever for stimulating economic and social development. The OECD Council adopted a recommendation for Digital Government Strategies in July 2014. The recommendation applies a useful definition of digital government, which I have used as the basis of my shorter definition: “digital government refers to the production and access to data, services and content, sourced and distributed across the digital ecosystem to create public value”.

This provides some clarity as well as a focus on effectiveness. Above all, it highlights the importance of creating public value, through which digital government helps achieve the state’s economic and social development goals. This public value imperative places investment decisions for digital government initiatives at the door of policy, program and business owners rather than the IT department or service delivery organisations.

This definition further highlights the fact that digital government relies on a collaboration between actors from across government, NGOs, private sector organisations and civil society via digital means. Digital government is not the sole domain of government agencies nor is it government-led business transformation. It is a societal-wide phenomenon that enables government to interact with citizens and business in new and innovative ways, for the purpose of achieving better government. This leads to increased levels of trust in public institutions, which in turn underpins a well-functioning modern society.

Finally, digital government represents the creation of accessible services, data and content — the highly visible, yet often transactional, side of government in a digital world.

Driving better value with real-time data

From my own discussions and research with government leaders around the world, it is clear that simply putting a form online or releasing a new mobile app does not in itself deliver public value.

For example, a European-based organisation I interviewed a few years ago made the pensions claims process available as an online service. They were disappointed by the uptake of less than 10%, and this made me ponder the question of whether it was an appropriate process to put online. Had they done their research in terms of transforming a business process to create value through digital means or had they fallen into the trap of simply putting an existing process online to fulfil a government mantra for online services? In my opinion, they overlooked the fact that, for some people, coming into a government office for a major life event was something they valued.

Public policymakers have much to gain from leveraging the rapidly-expanding treasure trove of digital content and services, as data lies at the heart of evidence-based policymaking. The digitisation of business processes, while delivering efficiency dividends, is providing the raw materials for more effective policy and program delivery.

Accessing data at source, in real-time in a digital format, provides policymakers with the evidence base for the faster decision-making that is associated with targeted social and economic policy. Importantly, the massive increase in digital data, both structured and unstructured, can be used to measure the social and economic impact of policy execution via lead indicators rather than the lag indicators that are generated through traditional evaluation methods.

Digital government, while giving us more effective service delivery, has the potential to be the catalyst driving significant policy reforms in order to address the complex and difficult social and economic problems that face all of us today.

This article was originally published at BCG’s The Centre for Public Impact website.

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