Is Digital Transformation Delivering More Productive Public Services?

Written by Niall McKeown, CEO of Ionology

Charles Duhigg is a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter at the New York Times and best-selling author of Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive. In his book Duhigg explains that the most productive people are not those that have the latest software, good websites, the most up to date iPads rather, those that increase productivity start by creating a new way of thinking.

When electricity was first popularised there was a huge wave of factories that replaced their steam engines with electrical engines and in almost all those factories the productivity failed to rise. This is referred to in economic literature as the “Productivity Paradox”.

What factory managers had done was to align the machines on the factory floor so the steam pipes would run from machine to machine and when they moved to electricity they swapped the pipes with wires. This was standard thinking in its time. It took 25 years for plant managers to comprehend that electricity wasn’t just a new power source but that you could utilise these machines in new ways that could have workers work more efficiently, or use less people, or could create an entirely different kind of assembly line.

When we look at many digital transformation projects that are being undertaken within public services, they are in the most part simply digitisation projects; nothing is being transformed and productivity is almost certainly not being increased. Duhigg explains that productivity is only increased when new strategic planning is embedded.

When we seek to find the underlying strategy process that was used to create the modern digitally transformed public service and the answer returned is “Lean”, “Agile” or “Scrum”. These are of course software delivery methodology, not strategy planning techniques. Lean, Agile and Scrum will almost certainly lead to sub-optimal strategy as they focus on reengineering a current problem rather than totally rethinking it. We often don’t see that the solution provided is suboptimal because of the non-competitive nature of most public services.

The fact that those leading the charge on “Digital Transformation” haven’t actually defined what the term means, makes it impossible as well for public sector workers to even know if what they are doing constitutes as ‘digital transformation’. There’s no checklist, no predicative measurement scale that can be used to grade a transformation project. From my experience, most are replacing steam pipes with electrical wires.

So, to answer my own question – Is Digital Transformation delivering more productive public services? I would say, probably not.

Niall McKeown is CEO of Ionology and is currently co-authoring a book – “The 7 Principles of Digital Business Strategy” (to be published Nov 2016 – Business Expert Press

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