This is the first instalment of our series on digital government.
Technology is essential to our lives. We connect with friends and family online, shop at the click of a button and receive same-day shipping, expect instant notification for every interaction and use digital devices to access information that can help us make major life choices.
So as citizens we expect to connect with our governments digitally. For example, in Australia, more than 14 million citizens have signed up to MyGov (the Australian Government’s online access platform) as the suite of services and functions has expanded. We expect to easily find information and transact through devices and channels including live chat, messaging and social media, as well as on the phone and in person.
Citizens expect their governments to be nimble and are quick to use social media (about 67 per cent of people in the UK are active users) to complain when they are not. Tight budgets mean government departments are expected to use technology to do more with less. Meanwhile cyberattacks are growing: 46 per cent of businesses and 26 per cent of charities in the UK reported having cyber security breaches or attacks in 2019.
The work of government departments spans policy development, service design and delivery, and corporate services. Until recently, technology was a discrete input housed in the IT section. But today, technology is embedded deep in every activity.
Governments are working on initiatives across and within departments. (When we talk about government departments, we also include agencies, statutory authorities and other arms of government.) For senior executives a key challenge is transforming their organisation while maintaining service delivery and aligning with whole-of-government digital strategies. This article helps leaders of government departments to identify the key digital transformation imperatives.
A department’s policy function is under pressure to move quickly from idea to launch, and then to incorporate feedback. But people also expect governments to get it right the first time and to quickly remedy wrongs if they emerge.
Fiscal constraints create pressure to ensure the effectiveness of policies is known sooner and to correct course if things do not go to plan. The days of a three-year lag between a policy being announced and it being implemented are surely numbered.
To achieve shorter lifecycles and greater responsiveness on a policy, a government department needs to quickly identify the customer cohorts impacted, conduct trials and have information on the impact. This means departments need new digital capabilities, including agile ways of working, rapid testing of alternatives policy proposals using digital channels, the ability to generate granular data on pilot policies, and techniques to turn data into insights to make rapid decisions.
In recent years, service design has focused on end-to-end design of well-integrated services via digital, phone and in-person channels that are simpler and easier for customers and for the agency delivering those services. This marks a shift from the past, when efforts were focused mostly on service delivery operations and incremental improvements. Skills for service design, such as design thinking and prototyping, are in high demand and are often scattered across policy, program and service delivery functions.
For customers, service design must ensure that services are easy to find, understand, check eligibility for and apply for, all through multiple digital and in person channels. For departments, it is an opportunity to simplify business processes and IT systems and to question business rules. Managers need to be skilled up to analyse data to improve the customer experience, manage costs and deliver policy objectives.
Governments around the world are putting digital service design into action. For example, the United Kingdom has established a “digital by default” principle across all government services, meaning most of the 650 transactional services it offers can be done online, saving the government up to 1.8 billion pounds a year.
For an individual department, it is imperative to understand the expectations and service preferences of different customer cohorts, for example, disadvantaged people in regional areas compared to time-poor urban professionals. Where previously these preferences had been studied in the context of specific services, now they need to be considered in the context of all relevant services.
And services need to be accessible for all, because government departments, unlike the private sector, cannot cherry pick their customers. As the services provided by a government department need to be accessible to all segments, the design of services is complex and the balance between efficiency and effectiveness challenging.
In service delivery, digital technology needs to build on the rich tradition of individualised in-person service delivered by a knowledgeable and long-tenured workforce. Those expectations set the bar for customer expectations of digital channels, which need to work in concert with in-person and contact centre channels. The multichannel customer experience must be perfectly orchestrated, with each stage completely integrated.
Examples like this mean ensuring customers do not have to repeat themselves, with each stage of a transaction leveraging the previous stage (even across channels). Customer information needs to be deployed to personalise the service, reduce customer friction, improve the service and provide transparency.
From an operational perspective for a department, managing digital channels requires new skills that are in demand. The public and private sectors increasingly feature new job types, including big data analyst, complex decision support analyst and customer experience expert.
Managers may need to rethink where they house these skilled resources; many traditional IT roles benefit from integration with service delivery teams. It can be challenging to keep IT systems reliable while implementing new platforms, including those based in the cloud.
Deep thinking needs to go into managing the operations workforce to maintain quality and curb costs. Workforce planning must reflect a shift of transactions from the contact centre and in-person channels to digital channels. The rate of migration can be unpredictable, adding to the challenge.
Service problems can cause reputational damage, with even brief outages making headlines and prompting social media outrage. For example, the app developed by the UK government to allow EU citizens to apply for post-Brexit residency came under fire for security flaws and functionality problems. 
Avoiding these problems requires sophisticated data analytics capabilities, mature problem solving, root-cause analysis capabilities and cross-functional teams that can be stood up rapidly. These capabilities are key for service delivery teams providing quick and actionable feedback to policy development and program design areas. Service delivery teams are closest to the customer and can identify improvements to customer experience and policy outcomes.
But sometimes, despite these best endeavours, things do not go to plan. In these cases communications must be lightning fast, in multiple social media forums, on the department’s website and through traditional media. Explanations must include why the service is unavailable and the forecast restoration time.
The penetration of digital technologies will continue to have profound consequences for corporate services such as finance, IT, human resources, legal and communications.
IT is no longer the sole business unit with all the skills, ownership and accountability for everything related to technology. Technology skills, platforms and resources are in all parts of the organisation, embedded in teams and performing roles that require technology and business skills. But the IT department is still expected to play a key role in ensuring the skills and capabilities are harnessed.
Suddenly technology-enabled initiatives to improve customer experience and reduce costs are integral in the plans of departmental business units. Meanwhile IT-related risks have a higher profile and standards are harder to enforce given the proliferation of cloud software platforms.
Identifying – let alone controlling – IT expenditure across all parts of the department is challenging, given the integration of IT in every process and function.
Data is a valuable government asset. Some organisations are establishing data management and analytics as a function separate from IT in order to drive rapid adoption of evidence-based decision making. Given its dependence on IT, however, it is not yet clear which model is most effective. Regardless, senior leaders expect thought leadership and tangible support from the IT department as they develop the model that works best for them.
Other corporate functions will find internal stakeholders expect them to offer services that are easy to use, always available, simple and move at digital speed. Analysis from Finance, HR, communications and legal services teams is expected to be increasingly sophisticated. These functions face continuing cost pressures, so most are modernising their core IT systems to provide more digital self-service, analytics and automation. The maturity of these corporate functions is a critical factor in the success of technology-enabled transformation.
Across the span of a government department’s activity – from policy development to service design and delivery and corporate services – technology can contribute to a significant uplift in performance. But to achieve the full benefits, departments need to think carefully about how they deploy it.
In the next instalment, we will look at the five questions every public sector leader needs to ask regarding digital transformation, and in the third instalment, we look at the capabilities that are critical to success.
Get in touch to discuss how Nous Group can help your agency’s policy, service and corporate functions make best use of technology.
 “UK Government Brexit App Riddled with Security Issues”, Infosecurity Magazine, November 2019