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Innovation at scale - how to build lasting digital success in government

Justin Wilson Profile picture for user Justin Wilson January 18, 2022
The public sector demonstrated that it can respond quickly to change in a crisis - Justin Wilson of Mulesoft explores how digital leaders in UK government services can build on this momentum to change and innovate at scale.

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No sector can claim to have escaped the impact of the pandemic, but few were exposed quite so relentlessly as the public sector. It faced an unprecedented surge in demand for information and services—from healthcare to welfare support, all whilst managing a mass shift to remote working. Despite these challenges, the public sector worked hard to weather the initial storm. Now comes the hard part—developing a strategic approach to digital innovation that’s able to continually meet the changing needs of the population. The key will be unlocking value from existing IT capabilities and harnessing automation to minimise complexity, accelerate time-to-value, and drive digital agility.

A widening gulf

We often hear how the pandemic accelerated digital transformation in private sector industries such as retail – in some cases by several years. In government, the story is more nuanced. While demand for digital services has surged, it’s been more difficult for departments to keep up. The volume of global citizens using digital government services more than once a week has increased from just 34% in 2014 to nearly half (47%) in 2020. During the crisis, a quarter (25%) are said to have accessed government services online at least once per day.

There were some early wins for the UK government. It delivered 69 new digital services by the end of May 2020, with flagship projects like the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) designed, built, and launched in less than five weeks. However, it remains difficult to meet rising user expectations for these services. Over two-fifths (44%) of citizens argue the quality of digital government services should be as good, or better than those offered by banks, telcos, and other well-funded private sector organisations. A third (32%) expect government services to be on a par with those offered by tech giants like Google and Meta. That could explain why the gulf between expectation and delivery is widening. 

Innovating at scale

To improve their ability to meet these expectations, government departments have invested heavily in IT modernisation strategies. These efforts have focused on how departments can unlock the value from their legacy technology systems and enable faster digital innovation. Now, they are looking at how these strategies can be levelled-up to drive innovation at scale. The first step is to integrate applications and data in a more agile and flexible way across government departments, to create seamless user experiences. Reusable APIs are the key, enabling departments to transform digital services and capabilities into a series of interchangeable building blocks. In this way, they can unlock data from its silos to create a single source of truth, and empower business technologists – those outside the IT department – to build their own solutions to meet the needs of citizens, driving faster and more scalable innovation.

However, because the underlying architecture of most government IT is increasingly hybrid and multi-cloud, managing and securing all these APIs will become a challenge in itself. Universal API management capabilities will be vital to drive seamless visibility and control across environments. These API management platforms will become the glue that binds digital strategy together, enabling government organisations to run and catalogue their APIs wherever they are created, whatever standards they’re governed by, and whatever gateways they have.

Automation is the second key ingredient for successful government transformation. It’s also critical to the success of API-led connectivity – abstracting the layers of complexity between systems and applications to enable self-service capabilities that alleviate IT bottlenecks. Research shows that most organizations are either already using, or are planning to deploy automation to drive greater productivity and operational efficiency, and create better connected customer experiences.

By combining integration, API management, and automation in this way, the government IT ecosystem can be reimagined as a network of reusable capabilities that can quickly and easily be composed into new digital services. It’s this composable IT approach that, if successful, could deliver a more agile government capable of responding faster to the needs of its citizens.

Driving cultural and process change

To deliver this strategy, government IT and digital leaders must foster a change-ready culture within their departments. Early work to understand where roadblocks could arise is also a critical first-step. A government-wide digital leadership professional development program could also add significant momentum to these strategies, helping to develop the right in-house skills. Government CIOs should take advantage whenever possible of sporadic funding opportunities, whilst also working hard to link proposed investments to leadership goals.

Finally, let’s not forget governance. It’s essential to clarify roles, dependencies, ownership, and accountability for digital projects, and across existing silos. It may be a long journey, but the promise of more agile, cost-effective public services is a prize no government can ignore. Delivering on this vision will be vital to their ability to respond faster to the rapidly changing needs of their citizens, through world-class digital government services.

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