No simple solutions — digital transformation's long journey

By John Kost, Group VP, Gartner
Thursday, 22 October, 2015

No simple solutions — digital transformation's long journey

IT infrastructure is not usually the limiting factor in digital government transformation — it is the governance models and the leadership that must enable it.

Gartner defines digital government as government designed and operated to take advantage of digital data in optimising, transforming and creating government services. Digital government creates new process designs that not only connect people and government, but also connect people and government with things to meet individual needs and improve government efficiency.

We draw the important distinction between ‘digitisation’, which involves automating existing processes and moving information from analog to digital (for example, from paper to online forms) and ‘digitalisation’, or the process of becoming a digital government. Digitalisation transforms business processes rather than augmenting or replacing existing ones. It means using digital technologies to change a business model and create new value or opportunities for the government and its citizens.

There are many challenges in moving to a digital government world. Data silos must be overcome and data shared internally and externally, for example, through open data programs. Processes must be standardised across silos as much as possible. Getting multiple organisations to work together towards a common objective, connecting and sharing data and integrating applications is rarely simple.

There are no packaged products and no simple solutions, because it is about changing the way government works. Instead of looking for a magic bullet, we need to think about using new tools in creative new ways. However, IT infrastructure is not usually the limiting factor in digital government transformation. It is governance models and leadership that must enable it.

People first

People are behind a convergence of information, social interaction, mobility and cloud. This is what Gartner calls the ‘nexus of forces’. Using multiple devices and applications of their choosing, people connect with one another and interact with a wealth of information. The seamlessness of their experiences relies on an underlying cloud infrastructure. People now expect this prolific interactivity and information access in all their roles, including how they interact with government.

Public-sector leaders need to think in a ‘customer-centric’ rather than a ‘program-centric’ way in order to remain agile enough to keep up with changing citizen expectations and needs.

For successful digital government transformation, we encourage leaders to think about people first, followed by process, data and, then, technology. While technology can enable new approaches, a technology-led approach will not work. The organisational or ‘people’ aspects may include developing workforce competencies and leadership qualifications and building organisational resilience to cope with the change required. Program and project management processes such as governance frameworks and management systems need to be reviewed. Information must be treated as an asset. Interoperability and re-use of data must be a requirement. Then, appropriate technology platforms should be considered, using an incremental rather than ‘rip and replace’ approach.

Engaged leaders

It turns out that the most critical IT role in the public sector is actually the chief executive, not the CIO. The chief executive’s aptitude towards conflict resolution related to IT sets the tone for IT management and governance throughout the enterprise.

At the end of the day, much of the work of government executives is resolving conflicts between multiple points of view, especially when a project affects multiple agencies. So, the executive must be available and willing to address conflicts or ambiguities surrounding policy, resources and processes.

Our evaluation of failed public-sector projects around the globe found that the fundamental problem common to most failures starts with the executive business sponsor, typically the head of the agency or department entrusted with enacting a new law or policy, driving many of the IT-related implementation decisions.

An executive business sponsor must be personally invested and visibly committed to the success of any business initiative that involves significant organisational and process changes, such as the move to digital government. The trouble is that, in most government agencies, the people who should be responsible for making sure a critical project, particularly one with a strong IT dimension, is properly ranked among competing priorities and adequately resourced are ill-equipped to do so or have no interest in spending their limited time on it.

Throughout the world, many officials lack IT understanding. The overall IT IQ score of government is slowly rising as a generation of digital natives enters the public-sector ranks, but this trend is not keeping pace with the rate of technological innovation that government so desperately needs to harness.

Public-sector project failures become very public, undermining citizen faith in government. When large-scale project failures happen, IT and the CIO are the easiest targets to blame. In reality, the problem is more often the decision-making process within government. The success of digital government initiatives is highly dependent on strong engagement from government executives, even if it is beyond their comfort zones.

Governance frameworks

Gartner receives hundreds of requests each year to help organisations review and improve their governance practices and processes or recommend different approaches to governance. There are many different frameworks and approaches to governance. The good news is that many governance approaches can be made to succeed. The bad news is that virtually any governance approach can fail.

All approaches to governance depend on having the right people in the governance process. But even with the right people, the framework will likely fail if those right people aren’t actually engaged as required.

To help make governance more effective, an organisation can boil the approach down to the following very simple phrase: Who decides and by what process? This phrase has three key words, all of which must be well understood by the participants in the governance framework or those dependent on governance decisions.

Achieving success in digital government is a long journey with a finish line that is constantly changing. Digital government is about the business processes and the data that supports them. Digital government transformation is not an IT project. Changing business processes and using data in non-traditional ways is a business problem, not a technology problem. To succeed, your leaders must be engaged in the decision-making.

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