Joanne Jacobs @joannejacobs
Managing Partner, Disruptor’s Handbook
Casual lecturer in Digital and Social Media and Public Communications, University of Technology Sydney
The role of government in any society is to protect the welfare of the people, and to ensure access to justice and services that benefit the entire community. Ironically however, the activities of government in achieving such admirable ends have traditionally been mired in paperwork and bureaucracy, effectively limiting the benefits to the community that government is meant to deliver.
For government and the public sector, digital technologies represent an opportunity to improve the productivity of governance; a chance to deliver greater access to services, more cheaply and more consistently across departmental portfolios, as well as across different levels of government. However, for a variety of legal, technical and practical reasons, governments the world over have struggled to implement digital solutions that go far enough for their citizens, in improving interactions with government agencies. And as commercial business shifts from leadership-oriented direction to customer-centric strategy, this failure in government and the public service to meet even the most basic expectations of the customer is affecting perceptions of the value of government and its officials – the so-called, ‘Establishment’. (Indeed in the recent US presidential election, Donald Trump self-identified as decidedly anti-establishment, and Trump-supporters frequently cited his promise to listen more closely to the needs and wishes of the people as a deciding factor in their voting intention. There are, of course, questions about the legitimacy of Trump’s anti-establishment credentials.)
Even so, it is not just the US that is experiencing anti-establishment backlash. Throughout the world, governments are dealing with a shift in consumer expectations driven by ubiquitous access to powerful technologies. We are living in an era where a smartphone and an internet connection can be used to answer questions that would traditionally have required hours of research in a major library. And that’s not all we can do with a smartphone. We can play the latest music videos, order food and goods to be delivered to the door, book tickets for holidays and events, and we can communicate globally and instantly. If we can do all this with our phone or tablet, why should we not be able to access government services as quickly and efficiently as ordering a meal online? For the voting public, there is no clear reason for the delay. And as a direct consequence, it should not be surprising that the public are led to believe a region’s political Establishment could only be dragging their feet on digital transformation, to somehow personally benefit from denying the people the governance they want.
The reality of digital transformation in government is, of course, rather different from the reactionary beliefs of the anti-establishment electorate. The delays in delivery of fast public access to services and data is, to a large extent, a product of concerns over data security, data integrity and standards of data exchange within networks. Because of budgetary constraints, the technical infrastructure of government is often out of date, and there are concerns over how data may be used from a privacy perspective.
There are also cultural and procedural reasons why governments and the public service can be slow to react to the digital revolution. Only in this case it is not an omniscient Establishment that is blocking adoption of digital tools, but rather procurement systems, lack of understanding and skills with the technologies among serving officials, and (perhaps misguided) perceptions about who owns government data, and how that data could be used to generate additional revenue for any government agency.
So it is not overt corruption from a deceitful Establishment that holds back digital transformation, but inefficient and even biased protocols, unskilled decision makers and territorialism. That may not be much better than an entitled Establishment, but it is perhaps a little more malleable.
Governments that are committed to digital transformation need to develop strategies that treat the risk of digital technologies differently. The risk of misuse or misappropriation of government data may be less significant than the benefits of providing access, particularly where new insights from data sharing is enabled. The risk of using open architectures and cloud infrastructure may be less significant than the benefits of faster data processing. The risk of engaging small business and tech startup innovators to improve citizen experiences of government services (rather than seeking the advice of global technology providers and management consultancy agencies) may be less significant than the benefits of collaborating with front-line customers among the citizenry. The key to digital transformation of government and the public service is to reverse the assumption that people and agencies should not have access to data. Instead of blocking access, governments and the public service need to enable access by default, and only then regulate or provide technical obfuscations that will enhance citizen privacy.
The concept may be radical, and public service officials may argue that the risk of failure is too high, particularly for major projects like healthcare and transport, but this approach enables a much faster adoption cycle for digital innovations. And as an open system matures, it is also more likely to be able to recover quickly from failure, even for such mission- and life-critical services.
Government and the public service must acknowledge that in a customer-centric age, it is imprudent to assume that existing policies and processes remain relevant, or that government should somehow be exempt from the digital transformation that encompasses us all. Further, failure to meet customer expectations of access may well leave governments and the public service at risk of targeting by anti-establishment groups, exemplified in voting movements, and also in leaks sites and anarchist groups like Anonymous.
But perhaps most importantly, all government service is designed to facilitate a greater good, so if digital transformation can effect change for the better, then it is the responsibility of both representatives and their public servants to embrace it.