Leading change in a complex digital world



Government CIOs need a simple digital strategy to lead change in a complex world. Developing a digital government strategy is a significant challenge, says Glenn Archer, a former Australian government CIO and Gartner Research Vice President but there are some steps you can follow.

The process for developing an IT strategy is reasonably well understood. It is generally seen as an important, if not essential, activity for most organisations and government entities.

In contrast, the how and why of developing a digital strategy for government is far less understood. But such a strategy for government, whether at a national or agency level, and is critical in driving productivity, engagement and innovation.

As technology continues to offer new and often revolutionary options in service delivery, citizens are increasingly comparing their experience in the commercial arena with that of government. The nature of this new competitive tension is often keenly felt by CIOs in the government sector when challenged to explain those differences.

Past practices of simply ‘e-enabling’ existing forms or transactions are no longer sufficient. But explaining why this is the case to people unfamiliar with the concepts of digital government can be challenging. Having a structure that supports doing so in a simple and meaningful way – a business oriented elevator pitch – can help CIOs increase the likelihood of such a strategy being adopted and, more importantly, actively supported and implemented.

Establish a compelling reason for change

Developing a digital strategy goes far beyond technology. It often means a call for significant change to existing policies, business processes and organisational structures. The strategy must be framed in a way that is memorable and includes a narrative that people outside the technology domain can relate to and appreciate.

Government business leaders, executives and elected officials generally recognise the opportunities represented by digital government. But they can struggle to understand how individual elements of a strategy support achieving the benefits. The strategy needs to be outlined in a way that they can easily understand and actively promote to others.

By providing a clearer narrative and a more explicit context for the strategy, CIOs can assist a broader government audience to better relate to the need for digital government, more clearly position the potential benefits that citizens and businesses can anticipate, and help others to better understand and value the opportunities and outcomes that it may deliver.

However, the differences between e-government and digital government need to be carefully explained to citizens, and the distinct advantages outlined. Gartner defines digital government as government designed and operated to take advantage of digital data in optimising, transforming and creating government services. E-government, on the other hand, is more narrowly focused on leveraging the Internet to improve service delivery and the quality of the interactions between government and other parties.

A recent survey by the NSW state government, for example, showed that more than two-thirds of citizens nominated easier-to-use mobile and online services as their preferred channel in dealing with government. In contrast, these same citizens indicated that they perceived open government, access to data and the digital economy as far less important.

Having a greater appreciation of the citizen’s perspective can provide insight and guidance to the context and relative priority given to various elements of a digital government strategy. It can help refine the portfolio of services that need to be considered and how these relate to regulations and obligations that government imposes on its people and businesses operating within its jurisdiction.

Provide an easily understood and memorable structure

The ideal model for structuring a digital strategy will vary by the level of the jurisdiction — federal, state and local — or by agency function. Having said that, Gartner research and client feedback have indicated that a digital strategy structured around the following three key themes works well in all of these jurisdictions:

  • Organisation productivity — Increase the productivity of government by making each of the organisation elements more effective and efficient through information and communications technology (ICT) and digital business practices.
  • Client engagement — How to use digital government to better serve the interests and engage with the needs of its clients, citizens, businesses, partners and so on.
  • Drive for innovation — Emerging technologies and innovations that will impact the way we work and deliver services, and how these might be leveraged.

While basing a strategy on just three themes may seem relatively simplistic, it is that very simplicity that helps make the strategy and its aims more easily understood by elected officials, non-IT agency executives and, more importantly, the citizens and businesses that have the most to gain from its adoption.

Give ample weight to context

The capacity to adopt digital government practices varies based on context. Issues such as relative technology maturity, political system, size, cultures, resources and leadership, will all influence the approach taken. Rather than simply attempting to copy the achievements of others, understanding your context is fundamental to formulating the strategy, implementing it and achieving the benefits.

The approach adopted — both in developing the strategy and in agreeing to the time frame and metrics that will see it implemented — will need to take into consideration the context that the organisation operates in.

Where individual agencies are pursuing a digital government agenda for their own purposes, the degree to which they can succeed will primarily be related to their domain. The range of benefits realisable by agencies supporting defence, intelligence or government finances, for example, is likely to be less significant than those in the health, social services, taxation, transport, education or business service arenas, when it comes to high-volume services provided directly to citizens for instance.

In each case, these types of considerations will impact the reasons for wanting to pursue a digital government strategy and the reasonable aspirations embedded within it. Critically, it will also help better put in context those successful e-government and digital government initiatives undertaken by other agencies and jurisdictions.

The focus of any digital strategy, however, must align with the government’s wider agenda, with the needs of other government organisations , and with the degree of risk tolerance that arises from a desire to adopt innovative approaches. Any prioritisation must also be explicit and reflect elements of the agenda — that is, the capacity to achieve the desired outcome and resources allocated in the implementation plan.

Include an implementation plan

A well-crafted strategy without an implementation plan is a waste of time and effort. To ensure that there is a realistic assessment of practical constraints — and to avoid any disconnects between these two phases — implementation planning must occur as part of the strategy development and an outline, at a minimum, of that plan included in the strategy.

Implementation plans should include specific metrics to assess progress over time in conjunction with a communication element to gain traction with, and commitment from, target audiences.

Specifically, this means elected officials, agency executives, government stakeholders, business leaders and of course citizens. Such metrics should include performance against time, the achievement of major milestones, issuing public reports and data on progress, and commitment to undertake external reviews at regular intervals.

The use of social media as a source of feedback, as well as engagement with people, can add insight, aid confidence in the initiative and provide guidance on future directions through feedback.

Most importantly, in crafting the priority for each of the initiatives, the implementation plan must explicitly place more weight against those activities that will deliver the greatest advance to digital government or where the need is more pressing.

Gartner’s research strongly suggests that the implementation plan must explicitly place greater weight against one of the themes at the expense of the other two. Attempting to focus on more than one theme at a time risks weakening the momentum and attention needed to achieve transformation on the area identified as needing the most attention.

Endeavouring to address all three elements in a balanced way will rarely reflect the actual need for action. This is because very often one area will be underperforming and, as a consequence, be acting as a brake on progress in other areas. In a similar vein to the approach adopted by many successful commercial organisations, choosing one theme to excel in can also provide the context to demonstrate leadership of digital government.



This story first appeared in Government News magazine October/November 2015.

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