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The obsession of governments with web sites is obstructing any real digitally-enabled transformation

Written by Professor Vishanth Weerakkody, Director of Brunel Business Life Programme at Brunel University London

The public sector has made significant progress during the last two decades in exploiting emerging ICTs to improve the way government operates. But trying to “make government digital” over the last 20 years has not really delivered the desired outcomes or return on investment. Most so called transformation efforts have failed to take us beyond ‘e-enabling’ information and online transactions.

The mistake that most researchers, policy makers and practitioners continue to make is that almost every government plan, comparative benchmark and academic study has started from the viewpoint of a web site, app or transaction. This has resulted in government strategies over the last 20 years only ending up with cosmetic effects and the result has been like putting lipstick on a pig. What certainly has not happened is the much-hyped ‘digital transformation of government.’ Much academic work has thus struggled to achieve any insight into such transformation.

What we now propose is that in order to actually achieve a transformation of government through the use of digital technologies, we all need a complete reversal of the current way of looking at the challenge. Instead of viewing the problem through the lens of ICT, we must start looking at the political process of policy design.

This is our conclusion from research, discussion and consultation at Brunel University London on why so called e-government or digital government has not delivered on its promise. Our full analysis is now published in the form of a Working Paper entitled: “Digital Government: Overcoming the Systemic Failure of Transformation.”

Transformation is about changing policy instruments

Sadly, even the most recent approaches to transformation still come from the perspective of technology, not the core policy-making functions of government. We say that we must look at how technology can change the range, characteristics and selection of policy instruments — the tools that governments choose from to intervene in the economy, society and environment to make change, such as taxes, benefits, licences, information campaigns and more tangible things like public services and infrastructure. Only when technology changes those, in the process of designing policies, can we say it has transformed government.

Governments make and implement policy not services

To get real innovation we need this approach in order to focus on what the public sector really does. It is not like supermarkets or banks, and it is essential that we get rid of language like ‘services’ and ‘customers’ that comes from thinking of government as a commercial business.  If you want to transform government and public administration, you have to redesign your policy instruments and their legislation to embed the use of technology in creative ways, not just build a web front end.

One must also not ignore that fact that while civil and public servants may need some digital skills, their digital expert colleagues need to understand the specialised and often complex policy development, legislative and administrative world within which they are attempting to enable transformation.

“Digital Government: Overcoming the Systemic Failure of Transformation”, subtitled “Digital transformation through policy design with ICT-enhanced instruments”, can be downloaded at: http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/12732

  • Daithi57

    Hello. I have tried to access the working paper but am receiving an error message that the site is unavailable. I am currently helping a number of councils with the transformation strategies and I believe your report would be very helpful.
    Could you advise how I can access it.

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