• Bridging the digital divide is a key priority for @MayorSlyJames of @KCMO – find out how he is getting on
  • Finding political leaders who understand and embrace data as key to improving citizen outcomes is crucial, says @biblauer of @gov_ex
  • Digital technology can deliver huge cost savings, says @MTBracken – but this shouldn't be the number one objective in a reform programme

How can governments use digital technology to improve services and outcomes? It’s a question that resonates across administrations around the world – and has done for years. But the sheer pace of digital advances, not to mention the costs and complexities involved, means that tapping into technology is easier said than done. To help governments on this journey, we present 12 Top Tips from leaders we have previously spoken to from around the world.

1. Be ready to experiment

Taavi Rõivas, former Prime Minister of Estonia 

“Making a government digital is not just down to technology. The technology behind our digital identity, for example, has been around for fifteen years, so it’s not rocket science anymore. Any country needs to be ready to experiment. Our success has involved continuous experimentation and learning from our mistakes.”

2. Be disciplined on data

Kevin Donahue, Deputy City Administrator, Washington, DC

“The discipline of data means that you have to have data. But it needs to be good data, and you have to have the intellectual discipline to create some breathing room in one’s day, and in one’s week, to be able to look at numbers that enable you to have a much more factually grounded view of where the problems are.”

3. Use robust metrics and analytics for decision-making

Ann Hellennius, former Chief Information Officer, City of Stockholm

“We carefully weigh everything up with cost-benefit analysis. Whatever project we are focused on is supported by a robust plan in order to achieve the desired public impact. Right now we are focusing on the environmental sector, transport, education, and care for the elderly, but the potential to do more is huge.”

4. Bridge the digital divide

Sly James, Mayor of Kansas City, Missouri

“The digital divide has been extremely eye-opening, and so we have set about trying to find strategies to bridge this gap. One of the things we have had with Google was a contractual agreement that they would run fibre to public buildings in the catchment area, such as police departments, fire stations, libraries, community centres and schools. That forms part of what we are doing, but we are also focusing on digital literacy classes and education as well.”

5. Don’t forget privacy concerns 

Dr Kate Darling, Research Specialist at the MIT Media Lab and a Fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center

“There are some really great uses that come out of collecting data. You can use algorithms to try and find patterns of energy usage and use that to try and create more efficient energy systems, for example. That said, there are also some nefarious things that governments can use it for. It is a little bit tricky, and I would hope that democracy to some extent solves that problem. I hope that people care about their privacy enough to vote for people who do as well.”

6. Smart cities need people too

Leigh Tami, Chief Performance Officer, City of Cincinnati

“A lot of this smart city technology stuff looks cool – and is cool – but doesn’t necessarily answer a specific need. But to my mind, identifying a problem and subsequently seeking to solve it with technology is what a smart city is all about. But even though I think technology is great, a ‘smart city’ is only as smart as the people actually implementing it.”

7. Locate the leaders

Beth Blauer, Executive Director and founder of the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University

“We need to do more to demonstrate the benefits. When we talk to leaders today about data and evidence and analytics – we have to do a better job at selling why it’s so important, rather than having their eyes glaze over. We should do this by telling the story of the people this will have an impact on – both citizens and government employees.”

8. Don’t be too fearful of failure

Mikey Dickerson, former Administrator of the US Digital Service

“Fear of failure is a root cause of why these technology projects fail a lot of the time. People in every agency that I work with are terrified that if a project does something different and doesn’t work out then they’ll be blamed for it. They’ll then have to go through congressional hearings and consider the possibility that they could lose their jobs.”

9. Think big

Maryantonett Flumian, President of the Institute on Governance

“The first wave of digitally enabled e-government strategies delivered some important benefits, but too many of these initiatives focused on automating existing processes and moving existing services online. The coming wave of digitally-inspired innovation presents an opportunity to stop tinkering at the margins and fundamentally redesign how government operates, that is, to rethink what the public sector does, how it does it and, ultimately, how governments interact and engage with citizens.”

10. Don’t focus purely on the cost savings

Mike Bracken, former head of the UK’s Government Digital Service

“Overall, we saved £4.1 billion during the course of our digital reform programme. But you get to these numbers by not thinking about numbers. You get to these numbers by working on stuff that really matters. And crucially we did it all in the open all of this stuff is out in the open, as it should be.”

11. Data is not “a thing”

Stefaan Verhulst, Co-founder and Chief Research and Development Officer, GovLab

“It’s important to understand that data is not a ‘thing’. Data is a process, where a variety of elements come together, starting from collection to processing to sharing to analysing and ultimately using. At every stage of this chain there are risks involved.”

12. Look to the consumer world

Maria Robertson, Deputy Chief Executive for Service Delivery and Operations, New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs

“If we are truly serious about citizen-centricity and putting the citizen at the centre of the design, then we must look in the consumer world for the parallels, follow their lead and, more importantly, invite those providers to the table. Those providers also have an inherent interest in public service, releasing the productivity of the public and supporting a digital economy both now and in the future.”

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