As a new year dawns, it can be fun to look back 12 months and see what was being predicted for 2016. It’s safe to say that Brexit and President Trump didn’t feature highly. One forecast that did come true, however, is that technological change would continue to advance in every direction.
The evidence is all around us. Artificial Intelligence, driverless cars, blockchain, reusable rockets – the list is seemingly endless. The growing prevalence of such technologies should fill us all with a sense of excitement and wonder about what lies over the horizon. For governments, the potential is clearly huge, but there remains far more that they could, and should, be doing.
Weighing the evidence
It’s important to admit that there have been some successes. In many countries, citizens no longer have to queue up to renew their driving licence or apply for a passport, for example. Instead, a swipe of a tablet or click of a mouse has consigned such time-consuming tasks to the history books.
Much of this work was pioneered by the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS), formerly headed up by Mike Bracken. Using talent primarily brought in from outside government, GDS sought to redesign services around the needs of the user by replacing the online systems of 28 government departments and hundreds of agencies with one platform – gov.uk. It also established Verify, a new identification system, which ensured that British citizens no longer need multiple passwords to access government services.
Another country which has received many plaudits for its use of technology has been Estonia, winning a reputation for “e-xcellence” which shows that the size of a country matters little in a digital world. Not only was it one of the first governments to use blockchain but it also operates on an “ask only once” principle. In practice, this means that hospitals automatically register each new birth with the state, ensuring that the baby receives an official number that underpins their interaction with the authorities going forward. And for adults, the embrace of all things digital means they can use a national identity card to access more than 4,000 services, including filing taxes and casting a vote.
Denmark, too, has made significant progress in recent years. Its e-government strategy included making it mandatory for citizens to use online communications, abandoning printed forms and letters and introducing a single online access point to access a range of government services. New Zealand has also gained much ground by making its citizens’ ability to “complete their transactions with government easily in a digital environment” part of its successful Key Results programme.
And even the US, which garnered a great deal of negative publicity after the botched launch of its healthcare.gov platform a few years ago, is coming up fast. The establishment of its own Digital Service (USDS) – mirroring the UK’s – has helped enormously as has the magnetic allure of public service, which has seen talented digital leaders like Mikey Dickerson swap life on the West Coast for a federal posting in Washington, DC.
A rich seam of potential
These examples demonstrate that governments can succeed, and are succeeding, when it comes to digital technology. So why are these stories of success not more common? Sometimes it can come down to promising to do too much. Instead, it is better to start by improving the processes. For example, South Korea – which has performed consistently well in the UN’s e-government rankings – uses few data centres, but it has nonetheless created an online portal that mixes national culture with high usability.
Governments also need to capture the opportunities presented by analytics and machine learning. It can be done. New Zealand was experiencing rising welfare liabilities, but it leveraged actuarial welfare data to forecast the long-term benefits of short-term decisions. For example, an upfront $7,000 investment could reduce the time that at-risk females are on welfare from 22 to 7 years. And governments also need to change the way they interact with citizens by being more accessible, offering self-service options, and so on. Identifying and moving on these priorities will lead to a far greater prospect of success. The French government did this by open sourcing their tax calculators for citizens to use.
How to make this work: five recommendations for the future
Focus on flexibility
The design of government institutions does not always cater for the speed and power of technology. Older structures can be rendered obsolete, and transformational change – much like in the private sector – remains a challenge. A central coordinating unit can help. Such a body can have overall oversight, tailor relevant strategies and orchestrate cross-departmental digital projects, flagging up situations where extra support is needed.
Such bodies have worked well in the corporate world – and they are already taking root in the public sector, as in Norway. Here, the government’s Digital Agenda Norway is underpinned by a Digitisation Council, which provides quality assurance in all phases of digital projects to help ensure that fewer projects overrun their budgets.
Core de force
A revolution of the government’s internal IT infrastructure – its core systems, in other words – should be another area of focus. This might sound unimportant, but core systems make up the backbone of departmental operations, enabling citizens to receive their social security payments on schedule, receive a passport in time to take their holiday, and so on. So, while the process is technical, the impact is felt in citizens’ everyday lives in a multitude of ways. Unfortunately, older legacy systems are rarely fit for purpose, and government has yet to consistently find a way to upgrade and replace them effectively – overspends and missed opportunities abound.
To help prevent such problems, a third priority for government should be to bring in more talent from the outside. Civil servants are not always best placed to drive these changes, as they do not always have the right skill set or experience for digital transformation. But if governments are serious, they need the best and the brightest at the centre and on the frontline.
The Obama administration recognised this by launching the Presidential Innovation Fellows and 18F initiatives to transplant some start-up energy and Silicon Valley expertise into the federal government. Some 450 engineers, data scientists, designers and product managers have worked in 25 agencies to make government websites more user-friendly and open up 180,000 federal datasets to citizens. Renewing a green card now takes a fraction of the time it previously did, for example.
Having the right teams in place is an important factor, but it is only part of the story. It should come as little surprise that googling “government IT failures” brings up more than 10 million results, and so another focus for government leaders should be to extend their use of pilot schemes.
It can be challenging to summon up the courage to try new techniques in what is a notoriously risk-averse environment, but pilot schemes can help them move forward without committing to the type of large-scale project – big in cost, scope, and risk of failure – that so often falls short. For example, in Amsterdam a new Digital Road Authority is being introduced, with three pilot schemes under way to test for improvement of traffic flow, wellbeing and traffic safety.
It’s good to talk
The prospect of administrative tasks being outsourced to a computer algorithm means that it is a real challenge to keep the workforce productive and enthusiastic. Accordingly, government leaders need to communicate better by being open, transparent and inclusive – from the start. This includes the early planning of how, in the age of automation, the workforce might be redeployed to other tasks. The UK’s HM Revenue and Customs has created its own government-owned company – enabling the department to retain knowledgeable employees as its IT activity changes over time.
Towards a digital tomorrow
There is no doubt that digital has already rendered old habits and expectations obsolete – and yet we have barely scratched the surface of what technology can offer. In our world of apps and Airbnb, Spotify and SoundCloud, citizens have rapidly become accustomed to an easier, smoother way of life.
That governments have recognised the power of technology to drive performance is to be applauded, but their work has, in truth, only just started. Real change can happen, but it’s time now to pick up the pace and turn potential into reality – taxpayers deserve no less.
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