If governments don’t act on digital initiatives and stand still when it comes to technology changes, then they risk their credibility with citizens and their legitimacy as public institutions. That’s the opinion of Salesforce’s new SVP of Government Solutions, Casey Coleman.
Coleman was appointed to the role in April this year, following the departure of Vivek Kundra. She joins the team from Unisys, but has also previously served as the CIO at the US General Services Administration (2007-2014), and brings with her a wealth of knowledge of the inner workings of government agencies.
I got the chance to speak with Coleman this week at Dreamforce in San Francisco, where she laid out the top challenges and priorities facing governments the world over as it relates to digital.
Not an option
Diginomica has long documented the developments of digital government in the US and the UK, where massive strides have been made, but many challenges and blockers still remain. Politics, culture, skills, budget, inertia and legacy cause great friction in getting results. However, standing still is not an option, according to Coleman. She said:
I believe that for anyone who thinks that doing nothing is an option, that has its own risks. It’s not the safe harbour that anyone might think. Action is required. And there are so many success stories out there that there is a pathway that other organisations can learn from and travel in a way that is appropriate for them.
There is public pressure and there is a lot of scrutiny and visibility on the quality of government services. People really are motivated to go into public service to good. They are not there to push paper. When you take action, when you implement digital services, when you equip frontline employees with the tools to do their job better, to do their best work, you can retain talent, you can improve both customer satisfaction and employee engagement, you can improve mission delivery.
What’s the cost of not taking action? I think it is negative publicity, scrutiny, peer pressure from other organisations who outshine them in terms of their excellence. There’s a credibility and a legitimacy at stake if governments fail to respond intelligently to these challenges. They face a risk to their credibility, in terms of public trust. And public trust is the most important currency any government has really.
I was keen to get Coleman’s take on what she perceives to be the greatest challenges facing government at the moment. And unsurprisingly these relate to changing expectations the government’s inability to keep up with new tech. She said:
I think there’s two big challenges. One is the existing state of government today, in that there’s a portfolio of systems that have been created and have to be maintained. We call them legacy systems. Sometimes that’s an overly disparaging term. They’re performing important work. But the technology they were created on is from a different era in general. They have been created to automate back office functions, store critical data and comply with regulations. Regulations have not moved forward at the pace of public expectations.
This mismatch between what government is currently able to do with the existing systems and the expectations of the public with their private experience, creates a pressure point for government.
Given the demand for technical talent across all industries, and the shortage of supply, it’s unsurprising that governments are struggling to hire their own internal digital capability. Some are doing better than others, but even those that have made progress continue to admit that more is still needed. In the UK, for example, the Government Digital Service has looked at changing renumeration packages for digital talent and is also upskilling existing civil servants to fill the gaps.
However, Coleman believes that two approaches can help to address the skills shortage in the public sector. She said:
There’s certainly challenges to hiring the right people in government. These are skills that are in demand across the economy, so everyone is vying for the same pool of talent. I think there are a couple of ways to address that. One is to appeal to people’s desire to have an impact. For all professionals, government is a place where you can change the world, really change the world for the better. You can have an impact at a scale that you can’t duplicate anywhere else. The ability to have a mission that really appeals to the innate desire of people to be part of something bigger, is an important mechanism for attracting talented people.
Also, the model of the past was a job for life. And that really is not the model today, in any industry. So it is entirely possible, and even desirable, for talented private sector leaders to join government for some period of time, to contribute, and then return to the private sector.
However, governments must be careful when embarking on partnerships with the private sector to fulfil capability gaps, where they must ensure that they still have the right skills internally to guarantee the levels of responsibility that government work requires. Coleman added:
I think you’ll see a variety of private-public models. Even today in the US federal government there’s a significant amount of the actual work that’s done by private enterprise, in a sub-contracting role.
I think ultimately the government, however, is responsible in a way that private enterprise never can be. They own the policy, the responsibility to the citizens, in a way that commercial enterprise won’t. So I think it’s vital that government has the skills and expertise and understanding to establish the policy, set the direction and be good stewards in partnership with whatever private enterprise they bring in.
Politics and driving change
I was also keen to find out from Coleman whether or not she thought the intense political climate in Europe and the US at present was a good or a bad thing for digital government. For example, crisis can drive change – the 2008 financial crisis a case in point, where the quick move to cloud was often driven by lower capital budgets. However, when we look at Brexit in the UK, it’s clear that resources are being soaked up in dealing with the problems in disentangling from the European Union.
So is political disruption good or bad for the government agenda? Coleman didn’t have a clear stance, but she said that it’s the job of civil servants to remain focused. She said:
I look at it more broadly, in terms of civic expectations. Whether the expectations of the public are coming or manifested in some political climate, or manifested in expectations from their private experience, whatever those drivers are, there is certainly a pressure on government to demonstrate that it has the credibility and legitimacy to meet those expectations through the delivery of digital services.
It’s entirely possible to do this. It’s the job of the civil servant, the career employees, to remain focused on their mission and to take advantage of modern digital platforms.
And finally, Coleman addressed the challenges that government faces in driving change internally – which, as highlighted above, is often driven by political will, inertia and risk-averse approach to getting things done. Coleman’s solution is that government more broadly needs alignment around its approach to digital, so that everyone is moving together, towards the same goal. She said:
It is very true that government is a risk averse industry. And I think that there are some legitimate reasons for that. In part it’s because the work that they do is supporting health and life and safety. There’s real reasons that government is risk averse. And there are cultural reasons that we ought to try and overcome.
I think you can do this with an appeal to the mission. And with an alignment of all the different groups that need to be part of the solution. Even rudimentary things like performance plans, and how people are being held accountable, are those sort of things aligned or misaligned?
Because if the role of the contracting officer is to make sure there is never a contract that’s called into question, then they would always seek to be as conservative as possible. Whereas the IT or the programme office would be likely incentivised to achieve the mission and move faster. So you have to look at those alignments and see if there’s a way to bring everyone into harmony.
Image credit - Image sourced via Salesforce.
Disclosure - Salesforce is a diginomica premier partner at time of writing.