Retaining trust after digital failure: executive actions after the inevitable

By David Donaldson

Wednesday November 16, 2016

Risk is unavoidable in digital transformation, so government agencies need to be well-prepared for when things don’t go to plan.

The risk-averse nature of the public sector means introducing new and complex systems is difficult; high-profile issues can erode confidence in ICT among government the public, worrying agency leaders and preventing their continued sponsorship of digitally enabled transformation. This is turn threatens government investment in digital transformation at a time when it is sorely needed.

But the pace of change means agencies have no choice but to take on some level of risk.

“Strategic and financial support can waiver when faced with the risk of public failure, regardless of the merit of the program,” says Dean Lacheca, a former government technology architect and the author of a report from technology research and advisory company Gartner on how CIOs can regain trust after a setback.

“An incremental approach that takes manageable risks, backed by a shared resilience and determination across the agency’s leadership, is needed to successfully deliver digital government programs.”

Resilient, digital-savvy leadership is required to effectively manage the fallout from setbacks to government digital transformation such as the Census debacle, Lacheca argues.

Building pervasive technology literacy into the agency leadership team and embedding IT experts will help leaders understand minor setbacks are to be expected, keeping the organisation’s resolve steady and enabling a consistent approach.

Setting up projects to ensure sustainable progress, transparency and open assessment of risks helps avoid big surprises, he says.

Four actions for CIOs

Given the unavoidable nature of risk in digital transformation, Lacheca sums up his advice to government CIOs planning or implementing such programs in four principles:

  • Use a digital leadership program to build resilience and digital acumen.
  • Implement a shared digital government strategy, and use continuous delivery practices to sustain momentum.
  • Work transparently, communicating openly on progress, successes and setbacks.
  • Take a proactive, enterprise-level view on risk management practices to ensure they reflect the current risk appetite.

Developing digital leadership across the agency “will enable agency leaders to effectively weigh the risks of transitioning to digital government against the benefits by drawing on the lessons from other government agencies and the private sector,” says the report. Enhancing digital literacy among leaders is a key part of making sure they aren’t spooked by the first sign of risk.

“The CIO can expect these informed leaders to be more steadfast in their support for the digital government program, even in the wake of collateral damage from a digital government failure,” argues Lacheca.

One way of ensuring this happens is by ensuring the CIO builds a partnership with the agency’s head of HR, as well as the transformation program lead, to develop and influence digital leadership across the agency.

Digital goals should be aligned to the agency’s business strategy. “IT cannot expect to successfully deliver digital government if it is perceived by the rest of the agency to be focused on technology, not on business goals,” he points out.

Achieving measurable, sustainable progress from the earliest stages on is also important to maintaining support for a digital transformation program.

Agencies should have a response plan for when “bumps in the road” do occur — doing so will not only increase the likelihood the problem will be well handled, but will mitigate a potential sense of crisis. This requires approaching project and program management more transparently than government is often used to.

“Open and continuous communication around progress, successes and setbacks should underpin every stage of the digital transformation, from planning to delivery,” he says.

“An effective communication strategy will be vital to the transformation momentum being recognized and to ensuring the ongoing commitment to the program.”

The CIO should also act as a conduit between agency executives and the IT delivery team to keep IT leaders responsible for delivery abreast of the organisation’s risk appetite. “This will avoid a misalignment between the transformation program and the agency executives’ expectations of risk management,” argues Lacheca.

He recommends reviewing the risk management approach to fit prevailing circumstances.

“Risk is typically assessed by measuring impact and likelihood on a scale from low to high risk. Instead, consider assessing risk by measuring the value to the business and risk appetite on a scale from good to bad,” he suggests.

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