The pressure to introduce advanced technology such as automation and artificial intelligence to upgrade departmental and agency technology systems should always be driven first and foremost by citizens’ actual needs.
This was the message delivered at a recent event hosted by The Mandarin – and supported by Civica, a leading provider of business critical software to the public sector – at which several public service experts suggested both federal and state governments should consider a broader view of upgrading technology systems.
Professor Marcello La Rosa, professor of information systems at Melbourne University, issued a stark challenge to departments – take a wider view of citizens’ needs and see where they interact with government services, rather than demanding citizens to participate in established processes, which have not necessarily been designed from the public’s viewpoint.
“Take a citizen buying a house. Rather than looking for a loan or setting up your utilities or moving your furniture in isolation, these could all be services provided as part of an overall ‘buying a house’ process, with different organisations offering their own services within an integrated service,” he says.
“That same approach could apply to services offered by the public administration, such as registering a child, or lodging a divorce case. It’s all about mapping the customer journey and exploring how we as organisations can best participate in the citizen processes, rather than the other way around.”
Everything starts with the citizen
La Rosa, along with the head of innovation and organisational improvement for the the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services, Nick Chiam, and Civica business transformation consultant Daniel Roberts, identified some key pressures facing government departments and organisations while upgrading their back-end systems.
Alongside a general need for modernisation, Chiam empathised with departments “caught in the middle of fast and slow pressures coming together.”
“The slow burn…has been rapidly rising demand for infrastructure and services,” he says. “That also comes together with the rapidly emerging opportunities around tech.”
Chiam persuasively argued the need to reframe automation as something from the “corporate world” to something that has been happening continuously in the public sector and strongly aligns to three core VPS values.
These he said were around the need to deliver high quality services, so they are easier, and more customer friendly, freeing agencies from manual tasks so they can focus on high value policy and services reforms and ensuring reliability and accuracy, by removing duplication and multiple key entry.
But establishing that operations upgrade shouldn’t start with dreams of automation and AI, he says. Instead, public agencies need to establish an “evidence-based” approach of researching consumers’ needs, wants and even behaviours through data.
Automation is just a “tool for improvement”, he said, noting the DHHS has established a central “business process management” group instead of an “automation” team. The focus should be purely on value, not the technology.
La Rosa pointed to an initiative in Queensland, where the state government was able to bring together the systems of several agencies under a shared service for building applications. Starting with the consumer data, they informed the way departments would undertake their technology changes behind the scenes. In doing so, citizens would experience an integrated user experience.
“However, for that infrastructure to work, the key point is ownership. There needs to be an entity, like a shared service agency, that takes ownership of the end-to-end business process,” said La Rosa. “One that overlooks the business process and demand changes to relevant agencies that participate in this process.”
“A quick, agile way of identifying opportunities to implement this is by starting with the data as opposed to traditional business process management, which relies on interviewing or workshopping with staff. This data-driven approach to process management is called process mining.”
“Process mining has been applied extensively in industry as well as government. The Netherlands, for example, used it to drive standardisation initiatives across its municipalities through a cooperative approach that started from process execution data available at each municipality..”
Taking a broader, more inclusive approach
While identifying needs among consumers is a strong enough impetus to get started, Civica’s Daniel Roberts said departments need to step back and take a broader view.
“What’s your organisational vision? Link that in, what are you trying to achieve? Then spend time going through that journey and make sure you’re not trying to fix something narrow mindedly,” he says.
The trio agreed departments ought to undertake detailed research, asking anyone at any point in the value chain what tasks ought to be automated, and which tasks would bring more value if they had more human attention.
Chiam issued a deeper challenge: that departments avoid cold, objective language that may prevent some from jumping on board with the vision of any backend upgrade.
“I think language is important and I don’t personally focus on the language of robots and AI. It’s just software used to complete tasks.”
“I think about it as quality service delivery, then focusing on value-add, reliability and accuracy. These drivers aren’t new, and I think that’s to our advantage as public sector leaders.”
Agencies need to adopt an end-to-end view of system management, says Roberts. An ad-hoc approach will merely put an agency in a position where processes are a mix of manual and automated tasks with no overarching strategy.
“The approach of chipping away is in the past. Your Google, your Amazon, they’re moving at a rapid pace…so you need to take an agile mindset to transformation.”
“You need to have tech that can support an emerging architecture. So you can easily put it on a system and be adaptable to the back office area.”
Through it all: be agile
While many organisations and departments may feel pressured to conduct significant technology upgrades at once, Daniel Roberts says it’s important to gain leadership buy-in over time through iterative approaches.
“Get something small, think of it in terms of business value and the largest amount of value you can deliver. That’s where a lot of programs live or die,” he says.
“Once you’ve got runs on the board, you can continue to iterate.”