Public sector IT needs to get ready for a meteoric ride

Written by Miguel Carrasco on 4 March 2016 in Opinion

Few in government see digital as anything other than a doorway for strengthening public services. But, as Miguel Carrasco explains, the pace of digital evolution means there is always more to do.

There's no doubt that governments – in the UK and around the world – are becoming increasingly adept at deploying digital technology to strengthen their public services. Chances are that a tap or swipe of a tablet will replace those chores that used to require a trip to a post office: renewing vehicle registrations, submitting tax returns, applying for a passport – if they haven’t already done so.  

Today's digital tapestry sees different countries doing well at different things. Since its creation in 2011, the UK's Government Digital Service has served as an impetus to pay digital the attention it was due, helping inspire countries elsewhere to embark on similar journeys and make subsequent improvements. The UK continues to enjoy strong communications and political support, whereas the US  benefits from its dual structure – of 18F and the US Digital Service – which helps boost its technical capabilities and deliver cultural change.

But while this progress should be applauded, this is no time for complacency. From nanotechnology to artificial intelligence, 3D printing to cutting-edge genetic technologies, digital advances continue to ricochet around the world.  It all begs the question: how can policymakers keep up?

A technological tsunami approaches

What we are accustomed to today will be very different to what lies in wait tomorrow. Take artificial intelligence: A world where computers can think like humans will mean that future generations will come to view driverless cars as the norm, for example. No industry or government will be left untouched by this impending technological tsunami.

Getting ready for these changes will not be easy, but there are signs that governments' deployment of digital services are on the right track. Two years ago, the Boston Consulting Group conducted a 12 country survey on citizen perspectives on government digital services. Our upcoming survey – out later this year and this time covering 21 countries – shows that although citizens still face problems and hold high expectations, 78% of respondents believe that government digital services are somewhat better or much better than two years ago.

Although such numbers offer reassurance that we're going in the right direction, charting a successful course ahead needs more than just more of the same. To keep pace with the next wave of digital developments, governments need to do several things – starting with focusing on the user. We have found that while users are accessing more services, more often, across more devices, they are still facing problems across their overall experience. More needs to be done to enable users to easily flow through a digital process, as well as creating a smooth integration across other channels in case the user needs to go offline for support.

Fundamental change is a must

Policymakers also need to ensure end-to-end digital transformation. Digital government projects often focus on front end or back end transformation. On the front end, governments focus on improving the user experience, creating a veneer of digital transformation while maintaining legacy systems to support delivery. When governments solely focus on the back end, work focuses on upgrading systems while not addressing user experience or innovating with new business models. Only end-to-end digital transformation will deliver a fundamental change in how governments operate to improve services.

Government as a platform (GaaP) is another area to focus on because it promotes more open leveraging of government data. In turn, this fosters new business models and new solutions to be made outside of government. GaaP also extends the potential of digital government to the private and not-for profit sectors, creating a more fluid ecosystem to improve service delivery and solutions for citizens

These suggestions are imperatives for governments as they seek to move up a gear on the digital agenda. But such is the pace of digital change they may themselves be in need of refreshing before too long. The clock is ticking, and while no one can predict the future, it's safe to say that it will be digital. Governments have no option but to get on board for what will be a meteoric ride ahead.

Miguel Carrasco is a partner and managing director at the Boston Consulting Group's Sydney office

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Submitted on 7 March, 2016 - 17:08
I left the public sector in 2011 after working towards the very considerable rise of digital transformation, I found myself fighting an ICT Department set on retaining turn of the century technologies and failing to listen to the demands of a fast maturing local community. Complacency was never noted - it was a fight against anything that threatened the comfort zone - be it customers, staff, departments. There was never any time to consider leading edge possibilities because the IT team were battling compatibility, viruses, malware and anyone who suggested they needed to reconsider their priorities. They even bought updated systems and stripped it back by downgrading. The tsunami was more - to then, to be observed at a distance, and woe betide anyone getting in the way of their KISS policies. The problem was KISS was a perception, not a reality. We had developers frightened of the cloud, a hate of anything not MS XP, and an attitude of 'let us see them try...'. Well, the world has changed...and positively, for the better, change has seen massive advances in possibilities, as predicted but now ill prepared for. Imperatives? It is time to weed out the tardy, the regressive and those who hold back progress.

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