7 emerging themes in digital government

people around a desk

Written by Chetan Choudhury, Advisor at Prime Minister's Office

Designing and implementing a successful digital service doesn’t depend on technology alone. It is a heady mix of multiple factors including culture, mindset, data access, data privacy, and the ability to work iteratively and prototype rapidly.

Many forward-thinking governments are carrying out effective implementations of digital services by using various such measures. But many others continue to face daunting challenges. Berkeley and the Silicon Valley, home to some of the world’s first Internet pioneers who went on to become global tech giants, provided the perfect backdrop to talk about such challenges and think about how they can be overcome.

The government services forum was launched at the world government summit in Dubai, UAE, in 2019 by the Emirates government service excellence program at the prime minister’s office in the UAE. The forum is one of the leading programs under the GX umbrella, GX (government experience) being a new framework for government service excellence launched by the UAE some time back. This edition was co-hosted by the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

The Emirates government services excellence program was launched in 2011, in line with the vision of the UAE to be one of the best countries in the world by the year 2021. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, launched the program in order to raise the efficiency of government services to the highest levels, by focusing on customer centricity and enhancing government efficiency. The forum builds upon that vision and takes it forward by involving the larger global community.

Many governments continue to run websites in 2020 that look like they were designed in 1995

The forum was moderated by Jonathan Reichental, CEO of Human Future and a former CIO of the City of Palo Alto, California, and supported by knowledge partners Ernst & Young. The attendee list included leading figures from tech, business, academia and governments around the world.

Following Chatham House rules over three sessions, the round table offered panel members an opportunity to share experiences, connect, and deliberate on several important topics, including:

  • challenges facing governments as they try and understand their citizens and communities as we head towards 2030
  • key factors that should be considered as governments look to leverage new, emerging technologies in designing and implementing digital services

The panelists engaged in an animated discussion around various areas of government services and were very forceful about their views and arguments. But there was easy consensus over some key themes like:

  • introducing a progressive set of procurement mechanisms that supports agile and iterative working, and focuses on achieving outcomes
  • equipping leaders with the skills and mindset needed to operate effectively in a digital age
  • creating a culture in which working iteratively and taking risk is supported

Here’s a summary of the key themes that emerged from the discussion that morning:

1. Governments need to learn faster

Governments often spend a year developing and approving a new policy but then have to wait several years to find out if it’s been successful or impactful. There is a fundamental need for governments to bring the principles of agility more and more into the entire process such that there can be a swift alignment between policy-making and service development.

Wherever possible, therefore, work should be performed more iteratively and in beta, instead of simply looking at a big-bang rollout. This will help ensure that the policy being developed or service that is being designed is fit for purpose.

2. Upskill government employees to think and operate differently

As one of the panelists, an expert in data-driven decision-making, said, “The ability to produce data has outpaced most government leaders’ ability to process data. We must equip leaders with data literacy skills.”

Data quality and its impact on algorithms remains a major concern for government entities and has led to distrust in many cases

The needs and demands of citizens and the times we live in have changed dramatically. And so have the expectations from leaders designing and delivering services to these citizens. Data literacy, creative problem-solving and communication are no longer nice-to-have traits. These are now foundational skills that are key to success. The same panelist emphatically said: “We’re not going to fix the problems of tomorrow with the skills of today or yesterday, and there is a fundamental need for people to communicate across their own sphere of expertise and capability.”

3. We are risk averse — that’s unsustainable

Fiscal oversight, controlled resources, and the fear of attracting negative headlines have forced government leaders to become cautious and conform to the status quo. “There exist real constraints in how publicly a government official is allowed to fail,” remarked a city council member and a former mayor. But given the speed of change today, the significance of nurturing a culture that is more tolerant to failure and open to an iterative work process cannot be downplayed anymore.

Governments need to see learning as a continuous process, empower employees to take risks, and reward and recognise such individuals to create the right environment. In the absence of this transformation, it will not be an exaggeration to say that government entities may get left behind and not be able to fully deliver on citizen demands.

4. Digitisation with and not in lieu of inclusion

Some stakeholder groups are hard to engage digitally or may not even be open to engagement with the “government”. This makes it challenging when the same public sector institutions try to engage these stakeholders, for example when following an inclusive approach to service design.

Quite clearly, procurement processes in government have not kept up with the times

Ensuring inclusiveness may, therefore, require public servants to spend more time on the ground building relationships with people to obtain information than on digital platforms. In addition, investments may be required to build appropriate infrastructure in remote areas and for disadvantaged communities. If not, digitisation could risk increasing inequity.

5. Did you think about the user?

Many governments continue to run websites in 2020 that look like they were designed in 1995. That makes it challenging to navigate, to put it lightly.

At the same time, a number of “smart” government services remain optimised for desktops and not for mobile devices. To add to this, government leaders often lack a technical understanding of analytics, thus limiting their insight into how the public is actually engaging with them. This not only detracts from the user or customer experience but, in fact, makes it conspicuously absent.

Optimising user experience across all service delivery channels is steadily becoming the need of the hour. This needs to be coupled with a deeper insight into user/customer behaviour through understanding of web analytics and a continuous effort of exploring new technologies to deliver better (and more accessible) services and experiences.

6. The elephant in the room

Quite clearly, procurement processes in government have not kept up with the times. They are slow and lengthy — by the time a technology is “procured”, it may already have a new version or, worse, it may have become redundant. Again, procurement is mostly driven by temporary features rather than long-term outcomes. The budgeting processes don’t help either – annual budgeting calendars do not show respect to procurement cycles even if they happen to be agile.

The mantra for deploying digital solutions should be: “less governance, more agility”. Challenge-based requests for quotation (RFQs) that give a chance to vendors to get involved in the solutioning process from the start, can be an option to shift the approach while funding experiments through innovation labs and incubators can provide a way to navigate the budgeting maze. Another idea that has been gaining traction in some of the progressive government circles is the concept of developing RFQs around outcomes instead of design features.

7. Wait…there’s another elephant in the room

Data quality and its impact on algorithms remains a major concern for government entities and has led to distrust in many cases. Misaligned incentives and competing priorities often run against a build-up of quality data at the start, while the absence of data audits aggravates the problem.

As one panelist, an expert in human-centric service design, commented, “The problem for me is that we have so much poor data that if we’re trying to create algorithms out of junk data, we have to be mindful that our results might be reflective of this data — garbage in, garbage out.”

However, all hope may not be lost if the right design principles are set in the beginning. Some of these principles could include:

  • using algorithms to supplement and not replace human decision-making
  • ensuring ownership of the data and its traceability through the value-chain
  • ensuring that algorithms are fairly and transparently based on representative data

The forum concluded with panelists agreeing to continue the dialogue on the future of government services through the GX – government experience portal run by the Emirates government services excellence program and the future editions of the government services forum.

Originally posted here

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