Skip to content
November 13th, 2017
Florian Frey Partner and Managing Director, The Boston Consulting Group, Zurich

Pedal to the metal: why governments need to go digital faster

Article highlights

There is a continuing need for policymakers to accelerate their efforts on all things digital

Share article

Govts should focus on smaller, more pragmatic steps that can have the biggest impact

Share article

A chief digital officer in government could help accelerate the digital process

Share article

When I last wrote for CPI, we were gearing up for 2017 and all it had to offer. A new beginning. A fresh start. A time to aim high.

Now, with the end of the year rolling into view, it is a time for reflection about what has happened over the past 12 months. The highs and lows. And what has changed since the Christmas decorations came down. One thing that hasn't changed, however, is the continuing need for policymakers to accelerate their efforts on all things digital.

I know. This is hardly the first time someone has said something along those lines. But while it is a common refrain - and a reflection of the sheer pace of technological advances - that doesn't mean we shouldn't repeat ourselves. After all, going digital is not about producing shiny strategies - if it were, governments would have long since cracked it - but rather, it's about changing behaviours and acquiring new capabilities. Hardly an overnight job.

First things first

When it comes to digitisation, it can be tempting - as in so many things - to try to run before you can walk. But policymakers should ignore the temptation to go big and bold first, and should instead focus on smaller, more pragmatic steps that can have the most impact.

This is because digitisation, at its heart, is not about system replacements but far more about a new way of working, both individually and collectively. This makes the process extremely difficult, as it requires leaders and people to step out of their comfort zone and try something new. This is easier said than done, especially in government, which - like the private sector - can often be risk-averse.

There are many reasons, or excuses, for policymakers' failure to mine the digital seam more fully. Although all recognise its potential, the sheer difficulty of the task - or a preference for focusing on their own individual efforts rather than something on a wider scale - means that inertia is commonplace. Only a very few are really bold enough to make big changes.

This means that it is imperative to identify those leaders who want to go further, and it also highlights the need for some fundamental reform at the very top of government - such as appointing a Chief Digital Officer (CDO).

Introducing the CDO

So, why does government require someone new? Aren't most ministries well stocked with seasoned policymakers already? Well, yes and no. A CDO would have specific responsibilities and the experience necessary to accelerate the digital process and, as such, would not be a permanent member of staff, but rather someone who would be there only for the period of digitisation.

Nor would a CDO do digitisation for every department. They should be responsible for their own digitisation, because it is a business problem not a technical problem.

But given the prevalence of government silos and the fact that most ministries' systems reflect the pre-digital era, a CDO would have a key role to play. He or she would need to monitor and analyse how digitalisation is proceeding across government, identify who is responsible for each aspect of digitisation, detect what remains to be done, and ensure commonality across the system in areas such as citizen identification. A CDO could also channel politicians' enthusiasm for all things digital into an overall plan, one that makes sense strategically as well as electorally.

This won't be easy. The CDO is not doing digitisation for others, but will nonetheless have to keep pushing them to take action, so he or she will need a strong personality. From his own experience in the UK, former Cabinet Minister Francis Maude says that the CDO's power of veto over IT investments was vital to the success of the role. It enabled the CDO to enforce common standards much faster, as well as implement solutions that were better thought through and didn't just create new silos. This is just one example - every country will have to find the solution that works for them.

Mapping the route

There is also a need for a digital roadmap, one that is prioritised, because otherwise governments will just talk and not do. This is also a way to make governments more accountable and prevent policymakers from just stacking up the policy papers and not taking any concrete action. Many governments have a roadmap but, too often, the hard choices are being avoided and new systems are not being shaped to maximise their impact.

But even with a CDO there will still be many more questions that will arise, because digitalisation is such a fundamental challenge, one that envelops all aspects of how government operates. Take procurement, for example. In a digital world you can't be slow and have very cumbersome processes. Instead, innovative and agile models will win the day. Unfortunately, most governments are not there yet, because they have very traditional approaches to procurement.

Finance, too, has a role to play. Going digital has many supporters, and there is no shortage of schemes or initiatives - but no government has unlimited resources. This makes the role of the Chief Finance Officer all the more important. Along with the CDO and the Chief Information Officer (who is also likely to have a technical background), they will need to find a way to prioritise all these needs.

And skills remain a perennial problem. Although many governments recognise the issue, too few are able to call upon a workforce with the necessary skills to move the digital agenda forward. Although some appointments can be made from outside, this will only go so far. A better solution is to upskill existing staff so they know how to run and manage large IT projects, how best to use IT, and how teams can become more agile and multidisciplinary.

Fundamentally speaking

So as another year starts to draw to a close, where are we? Some countries like Estonia and Singapore are ahead of the game, but too many others still underestimate the fundamental changes that need to take place for digitalisation to proceed apace.

It's too early for New Year's resolutions, I know, but for 2018 and beyond, policymakers really need to redouble their efforts. The prize of improved citizen outcomes - something that digital brings within reach - should surely serve as motivation enough.



  • PODCAST: In conversation with... New Zealand digital leader Maria Robertson
  • Briefing Bulletin: Going digital - how governments can use technology to transform lives around the world
  • Power to the people. Few countries have embraced the digital era as successfully as New Zealand. BCG's Miguel Carrasco talks to one of the New Zealand government's key digital transformation leaders, Richard Foy, about how they've done it.
  • Ever evolving, e-Estonia. As Estonia's prime minster Taavi Roivas, played a pivotal role in the country's technological advancement. We hear how he did it
  • A new New Zealand: public services reimagined. New Zealand already has one of the world's most advanced systems of digital government - but it's not pressing pause. We hear from Maria Robertson, deputy chief executive, service delivery and operations, about tackling tomorrow's challenges 
  • Unlocking the digital door for developing countries. Although universal access to the internet remains some way off, Hans Kuipers explains what steps can be taken to bridge the enduring digital divide
  • Transforming technology, transforming government. Rare is the policymaker who doesn't see digital as a doorway for strengthening public services. But as Miguel Carrasco explains, the pace of the digital evolution means there is always more to do
  • Computer says yes. Governments are increasingly reliant on digital technology to deliver public services - and Australia's myGov service is a potential game-changer, says Gary Sterrenberg
  • Online, on track? Miguel Carrasco looks at how policymakers can improve the delivery of digital services

Written by:

Florian Frey Partner and Managing Director, The Boston Consulting Group, Zurich
View biography
Share this article: