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Government's Digital Efforts Trail Private Sector's

Globally, government leaders surveyed by Deloitte reported that they are behind the private sector when it comes to "going digital." Here's what CIOs and other government IT officials can take away from the report to aid in their own push for digital transformation.
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Like most organizations around the world, governments are going digital. They're not all doing it at the same pace, though, and there are vast differences in their progress.

Deloitte Digital, a global consulting firm, surveyed more than 1,200 government officials in 70 countries to see which nations are ahead, which are behind, and what makes the difference between the two. In addition, the firm interviewed another 140 government leaders and outside experts. The survey results and interview findings are detailed in the report, "The journey to government's digital transformation."

Globally, government leaders surveyed reported that they are behind the private sector when it comes to "going digital." More than two thirds of respondents to the Deloitte survey (69%) said they are "behind" or "far behind" the private sector in this regard. At the same time, nearly 40% of respondents report that they have no confidence in their organization's ability to respond to digital trends. It's obvious that they see significant barriers standing in the way of a digital future for their government.

Security concerns, funding issues, and lack of a clear strategy are the main barriers that they work to overcome. For example, only 44% of respondents say that their government has increased spending on digital issues compared with the previous year.

In a telephone interview with InformationWeek, report co-author William D. Eggers, a global director for Deloitte Research and executive director of Deloitte's Public Leadership Institute, spoke about the technology responsible for the most rapid changes in digital government, and about what some governments are doing to succeed in digital transformation.

Digital Transformation

We hear the term "digital transformation" bandied about a lot lately, but what does it really mean? According to the Deloitte report, "Digital transformation is about more than just technology implementation -- it requires seeing old problems and old processes with new eyes." The report describes this as having a "digital mindset."

According to the report, "Several characteristics tend to be common to the organizations that 'get' digital: open functionality, co-creation, a laser focus on users and customers, and an agile way of working. Our findings suggest that these characteristics have yet to become ingrained in most government agencies."

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The challenges of becoming more digitally mature are not limited to government agencies. While 37% of respondents to the Deloitte survey said that citizen demand is a main driver behind their digital transformation efforts, only 13% of respondents said citizens are involved as co-creators of the digital services. It's clear that digital maturity will require changes in how citizens respond to the government as much as in how government responds to the needs of its citizens.

According to Eggers, the fact that we are talking about digital transformation at all means that progress has occurred. "This is the next stage. About 15 years ago we started to see the emergence of e-government, or Gov 2.0. That was in the early days of the dot-com boom, when people started putting services online," he said. Those early services were simple, allowing citizens to print out information or fill out forms.

When asked about the extent to which digital technologies are disrupting the public sector, 76% of respondents to the Deloitte survey said that the technologies are, indeed disrupting the sector, with 53% describing the disruption either as "moderate" or "to a great extent." When the question narrowed in on the respondent's own area of responsibility, 96% reported that there has been disruption, 76% saying that the disruption was to a moderate or great extent. The nature of that disruption varies, of course, from government to government.

Some governments are beginning to use Web pages and mobile apps as the primary means of interacting with citizens. One of the leading national governments in this move to digital is in a nation that didn't exist in its own right three decades ago.

"One of the most digitized governments in the world is Estonia," Eggers said. "The country got its independence from the USSR around the time the Web was emerging, so they got to start over."

Building the government on a digital infrastructure from the beginning meant that the most basic interactions between government and citizens could be simplified and digitized. "Every citizen has a single identifier, and they never have to give the information more than once," Eggers said. "They've been able to do this because they've built a robust infrastructure and made digital first part of their infrastructure."

Moving along the digital transformation curve effects an organization in ways that go beyond the technology itself. Eggers said that one of the things that surprised him about the survey was the relationship of digital transformation to the organization's willingness to take risk. Overall, he said, only 28% of survey respondents said that the benefits of a digital transformation made them more accepting of risks, such as moving from waterfall to Agile development. The farther an organization moves along the curve, though, the more accepting it is of that risk. The most advanced governments are "… five times more likely to experiment with agile and iterative development processes than early-stage agencies," according to the report.

Agent of Change

The principle drivers of digital transformation are cost savings and demand from citizens. Smartphones -- including iPhones and Android devices -- as well as basic feature phones are changing the ways citizens think about interacting with their governments.

"Adoption of the mobile phone has been the most rapid technology adoption in human history," Eggers said. "I was talking with an official in Texas this morning, and they said that most of their clients are on reduced income assistance. But the smartphone is a huge way that they get to the Internet," he said.

In communities around the world, mobile phones are bridging the "digital gap," allowing users to communicate around the world and access government services.

"People are prioritizing the smartphones over anything else because it allows them to communicate," Eggers said. "It's also the nexus of banking for the un-banked. In Africa, it's not all smartphones. A lot of them are feature phones, so you have to adapt the technology in different ways. Mobile money, for example, is text based."

The mobile phone is far from the only driver of change, though. Sometimes, government policies and initiatives can drive effective change. That is the case, according to the report, in the US Department of the Treasury's digital strategy, which provides concrete and detailed plans for reaching the milestones spelled out in the White House's Digital Government Strategy, According to the Deloitte report, a sound digital strategy "articulates some of the basic tenets of digital transformation: openness by default, consumer feedback, citizen engagement, and a governance structure designed to develop and deliver digital services to citizens." Moreover, it includes radical openness and transparency as principles that are formalized through regular communications with the public, and the work of working groups and committees that oversee transparency implementations.

Keys to Success

What can CIOs and other government executives take away from the report to aid in their own push for digital transformation? When asked if there are key factors in the success of the governments that "get" digital transformation, Eggers listed five factors that make a difference no matter the government's location or size.

  • A clear and coherent digital strategy. Strategy is the biggest differentiating factor between successful and unsuccessful government digitalization efforts, according to Eggers.
  • The user at the heart of the effort. Building around the user is critical: A user-centric attitude is critical for putting the user in the middle of the work.
  • Rock-solid procurement. Too many organizations are stuck with waterfall processes when they need to make the switch to agile. That has an impact up and down the organization.
  • The right workforce skills. Governments around the world struggle to find enough workers with the right skills to build systems on time and on budget. A lack of enough skilled IT professionals can slow down the best plans.
  • A leader with vision. A leader who "gets" digital transformation and can articulate a clear vision is the fifth critical piece needed for success at moving government from analog to digital operations.

Success in moving government agencies into the digital world has become -- and will continue to be -- a major factor when the world ranks governments for effectiveness and the quality of life they provide their citizens. The vast majority of respondents to the Deloitte survey (82%) said they see digital transformation as an opportunity. The question is whether that opportunity will be seized or squandered by each individual government organization.