The Power of Digital in Government

Earlier this year I talked about Digital Transformation and  I’ve  talked about the book Delivering on Digital which highlights the things that governments around the world have done to come to grips with the digital revolution.  And now McKinsey has come up with an article – Harnessing the power of digital in US government agencies – that talks specifically about the U.S. Government.

But the article, while focusing on the U.S., isn’t exclusive to the U.S. as the ideas they promote are applicable to almost any government that is wondering what they need to do to survive.  It’s not difficult, it just requires someone with vision. 

The book had a number of different solutions that governments around the world have used to reap the benefits of digital.  The McKinsey article goes through and explains the difference between the “before” and “after” experience.  Some of those differences are huge for the government but are minor for digital-first companies.  And therein lies the problems.

Let’s highlight some of the biggest differences.

Agency-focused vs. Citizen-centric.

Here is where many organizations, whether or not they are government organizations, fall down.  If you are building an application, you build an application that the citizen wants and that the citizen can use effectively.  You do not build an application that is focused internally, you build an application focused externally.

How applications get built goes something like this:

  • Agency notes a problem that they have
  • They pitch the idea for funding
  • Once funded they get IT to build a solution to the agency problem

And that is where governments make their mistake.  Instead of looking at problems that they are having, they should look at problems that their citizens are having.  The odds are that the problems are similar, but with a different focus and that what separates success from failure.  By focusing on the citizen the government agency can look at the entire citizen experience and make the entire experience consistent, usable and enjoyable.  By focusing on the agency issues you get applications that aren’t consistent, that don’t work well together, and that don’t satisfy the requirements of the citizen.

Finite Projects vs. Digital Factory

This focuses on what McKinsey calls a “digital nerve center”.  A digital nerve centre has the skill, the experience and the desire to create successful applications.  In some respects, this nerve centre falls outside the boundaries of what you would normally consider an application development team.  This nerve centre, this digital factory, has the ability to change operational considerations, make things happen in a way for which traditional development teams don’t get the opportunity.

This team pioneers new methods and procedures, new technologies, new ways of working with the business and new ways of working with the ultimate clients:  the citizens.  Instead of having pockets of brilliance spread throughout the organization you concentrate some of it within this group and you let it shine.  That brilliance will attract other people, other talented people, and the digital factory can grow, spread out and encompass more of the organization.

This digital factory will help to spearhead a revolution in IT.

On-premise versus Cloud

Existing IT organizations within governments like to have on-premise computing.  There is a desire to have a tangible asset that someone can point to and say “That’s where your money is going.”  When you have cloud computing you don’t have capital expenditure on physical assets, you have operational expenditures on services.  This in itself is a huge shift in how IT has operated within government for decades and it is a difficult mindset to overcome.

But here’s the key.  The organizations most reliant on pointing to physical assets are usually those that have the fewest successes.  An organization that is successful in helping the business, in helping the citizen, in making a difference, is more likely to point to those assets than a rack-mounted server or a data centre.

Governing a country, a state, a province, a municipality, those are the things that government should be good at.  Managing IT hardware?  Not so much.  So why not let those whose livelihood depends on managing servers, managing the security around those servers, why not let them handle the infrastructure, while the government works on listening to the citizens and providing them better service?

It’s not easy

This isn’t an easy task, no one said that it was, but there are a number of steps that every organization can take to start down the path.

Changing the development methodology from waterfall to agile is one of those steps.  But this is also a cultural change.  Business areas have been reluctant to approach agile, within the government, as there is no guarantee as to what will be delivered and that ambiguity scares many people.  The idea that there is something called a Minimum Viable Product, a subset of the final product that should be launched and theoretically change what features are in the final product, well, that’s downright heretical to some.

While technology has changed a lot in the past twenty years, the concepts around how to build software have been much slower to change.  Organizations are reluctant to change, governments even more.

“if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, is the mantra that many people use.  The problem is that it’s been broken for so long that people don’t recognize it as being broken.

If we’re in IT and we don’t change as fast as, if not faster than our citizens, we are not only doing ourselves a disservice, we are doing the citizens a disservice.

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