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IBM – ‘Governments needs systemic change, not just digital projects’

A recent report written by the IBM Center for the Business of Government suggests that for governments to become ‘digital’ they need to look beyond individual projects and consider wholesale systemic change – and to bring policy makers closer to the transformation.

The report focuses a lot on the US Government’s digital initiatives, but also assesses the work being done in governments across the globe, including in the UK and Estonia. Its authors outlines a number of the challenges that digital teams have experienced in recent years and makes a number of recommendations for future success.

Interestingly, the report doesn’t come to a conclusion about whether a centralised team on its own is the best approach for driving change, stating that it’s “impossible at this stage” to know. It acknowledges that a centralised team, plus more dispersed teams across government may be a better approach.

Some of the challenges outlined by IBM will be commonly known to those that work with or follow digital government initiatives closely. They include:

• Getting government to embrace an agile development approach
• Attracting IT talent
• Maintaining and scaling a start-up culture in government
• Funding digital teams
• Addressing whether innovation should be bought or built

The report states:

What is missing in the current conversation about moving to a digital government is how these systemic problems need to be tackled beyond the individual project level and that the strategy needs to shift from digitizing existing processes to fundamentally rethinking and transforming business processes.

Based on interviews and case studies, the author concludes that successful digital transformation is dependent on systemic changes beyond the scope of CTOs and CIOs—such as personnel and acquisition policy changes—to encourage activities that support the ultimate outcome: transformation.

The recommendations made by IBM are interesting and worthwhile considering if you’re closely involved with trying to get government to become a digital organisation. They include:

Recommendation 1 – Digital is not a software problem

IBM states that digital transformation in government is a “holistic, strategic approach”. As a result, digital service teams, such as the Government Digital Service in the UK, need to be more strategic and focu on higher level public administration problems, instead of leaving the impression that they’re just in government to develop software. Digital service team members should be allowed to challenge existing traditional administrative processes and focus on achieving outcomes alongside those responsible for delivering public services.

Recommendation 2 – Embed innovation into traditional acquisition strategies and tools

The report rightly points out that too often private suppliers to government have just gone along with bureaucratic public sector processes and have even created independent business units that operate to government standards and processes. IBM believes that this limits the opportunity for innovation. Instead, innovation should be built into purchasing requirements – such as the demand for agile development, open source and user-focused design. These should be built into contracts and government buyers should be empowered to challenge the existing way of doing things.

Recommendation 3 – Phase in new cost models to support digital teams

Digital service teams that are attempting to drive change in government need to either be affordable or free for other departments or agencies to use. The report recommends that this is important, because otherwise the use of their skills and approaches will not be widespread, buy-in will not happen and adoption will lag. This is especially true for departments that have faced extensive funding cuts and/or haven’t built up their own digital capability.

Recommendation 4 – Include non-technical staff

As stated above, most of the challenges of digital transformation are not software or technical problems, but are process problems that have evolved organically over time. It helps, according to IBM, to recruit non-technical employees that have deep subject matter expertise about government processes to be team members to help challenge these norms.

Recommendation 5 – Challenge the view of ‘we are not allowed to do this’

Something that has been used regularly in the UK since the Government Digital Service was set up, IBM recommends that when trying to convince those that are blocking innovation by claiming what is being asked isn’t allowed, ask them to ‘show you the law’. The report states “ask where in the law or which regulations prevent public servants from taking a risk and operate outside the existing norms”.

Recommendation 6 – Enlist facilitative leaders to champion digital

Those leaders driving change need to know the tools, should have participated in agile design processes and should have taken the same risks as their employees. How can they get their employees to embrace the change and take the risks if they haven’t yet themselves?

Recommendation 7 – Promote collaboration between digital service teams and IT stakeholders

Government needs to establish a culture of shared purpose in modernising technology, in order to avoid an Us vs. Them dynamic, which has been seen in many examples of digital government in recent years. The report urges digital service teams to work with CIOs and IT and program officials to scale and integrate best practices, whilst establishing mutually supported roles and shared incentives for positive outcomes.

Recommendation 8 – Align digital with other national priorities

Digital transformation needs to be given the same level of attention as other policy priorities, since it will be a key enabler for the implementation of those priorities, states IBM. In the UK we have seen various levels of use of this. Some Prime Ministers have been supportive, whilst others have failed to see the need. With Brexit looming and greater political uncertainty, digital should be front any centre of any future government strategy.

Recommendation 9 – Money should be given to agencies to replace legacy IT

IBM states believes that a piecemeal approach to changing old and ageing IT systems in government isn’t enough to drive the transformation required. Presidents and Prime Ministers should secure the funding for agencies and departments to shift to cloud computing and shared services.

Recommendation 10 – Bring in talent from the private or nonprofit sectors for short-term assignments

The report acknowledges that government can’t behave in the same way that Silicon Valley does, with its “anything goes world”. However, citizens increasingly expect their interactions with government to be as seamless as those provided by companies in Silicon Valley. IBM believes that talent from the private and nonprofits sectors needs to be brought in to increase creativity in service delivery.

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