• Opinion
  • August 13, 2019
  • 10 minutes
  • 0

We are missing the point of digital government — here’s why

Opinion: Digital experts understand tech — but do they understand government?

This opinion article was written by Martin Stewart-Weeks and Simon Cooper, authors of the new book “Are We There Yet? The Digital Transformation of Government and the Public Sector in Australia“. For more like this, see our digital government newsfeed. 


Digital transformation of government is a story half told.

Despite plenty of effort and some outstanding achievements, it is a project that is in danger of hitting the target but missing the point.

The point about the digital transformation of government is that digital transformation isn’t the point.

The point is what’s happening to government, governing and the structures and values of public work. All of these structures are being tested by citizens, who are increasingly sceptical towards the competence, relevance, and trust from which governments derive their value and legitimacy.

The digital transformation project for government is going more slowly than it should, and failing to deliver its full transformational dividend. The reason is we’re only telling half the story.

The diamond of digital transformation

The best way to frame the challenge is within a “diamond” of four big changes that are important in their own right and even more important in their interaction. Between them they establish the standards against which digital transformation’s value and impact should be tested and measured:

  • Changes in the role and purpose of government. As new questions about public work and public value test the purpose and practice of many public institutions, these institutions seek new sources of relevance and legitimacy that can define their role and animate their work
  • Changes in the world which are ushering in big social, economic, and political shifts of power, risk, and vulnerability that fashion the policy agenda confronting governments and communities
  • Changes in technology, especially the new relationship between people and machines, in which the big questions of who’s in charge of whom, or what — and to what end — all seem to be in the air and threatening to land in some awkward places and patterns
  • Changes in the work of the public sector, whose patterns and rhythms are being disrupted in many ways, including in the search for requisite talent, leadership and relevance.

Are we there yet?

In our new book — Are We There Yet? — we explore each of those points in the diamond by turn and drawing the connections between them. We conclude with a manifesto whose central call is not so much for a digital transformation authority but for a “government transformation authority.”

We define digital transformation as a way of seeing and rethinking the entire business of governing, government, and the work of the public service, including to better serve citizens and customers, in a democratic society and across all levels of government.

For the most part, the discussion in Australia about digital transformation in and across government is focused on the digital part

It is a lens through which to reconsider the nature of that work, its enduring foundations, and its disruption in a very different and rapidly changing (digital) world.

We think the “theory of the business” for governing and public work is changing, driven in large measure by the digital technologies, and their associated culture of speed, intensity and collaboration, that have to be a big part of the response. As we write:

“At its heart, a new theory is emerging that is less concerned with the accumulation and management of public power and authority and more concerned with assembling collective intelligence to collaboratively solve problems“.

It’s an exciting prospect for public servants and all of those engaged, inside or outside the formal structures of the public sector, in public work.

Less talk, more action

For the most part, the discussion in Australia about digital transformation in and across government is focused on the digital part.

Those who drive much of the discussion understand the digital part of the equation, and it’s sometimes overhyped technology innovation and invention, but they understand much less about the context and the world they are trying to transform.

On the other side, those who understand the world of governing, of policymaking, and of settled, sometimes scratchy and awkward public institutions and processes, know little about the digital world and technology.

the big question about how well digital transformation in Australia is progressing shouldn’t be measured as a simple calibration of speed and performance

Too often, the default is a kind of mutual suspicion, even hostility, or accusations of “stubborn resistance”, or “digital for digital’s sake”.

Periodically, bits of the conversation do find common ground and a real dialogue emerges. Random acts of mutual understanding turn into shared ambition, common cause, and purposeful action.

Stuff happens, that joins the enduring instincts and ambitions of public work with intelligent, empathetic, and creative digital design and execution.

Intimations of transformation greatness are glimpsed when we stop simply doing digital and start to be digital.

How to achieve business as unusual

Our book is a call to action for a new “national mission” for the digital transformation of government and the public sector in Australia (and elsewhere).

This should build on what has been done, but at a new speed, scale and intensity that matches its national significance for success in the digital global economy and for a stronger and more accountable democracy.

As well as important business-as-usual improvements to the way we govern, the way we do policy, and the way we design and deliver services, digital transformation should also be an opportunity to think about what business as unusual might look like.

There are big implications for the practice of leadership in the public sector which should demonstrate the same collaborative, open, human-centred and “platform” characteristics that increasingly define the public sector in a digital age.

Public leaders need to create and hold spaces in their organisations that allow creativity, innovation and agility to flourish, including the need to develop new measures of performance against which to evaluate their teams.

As in other jurisdictions around the world, we think the big question about how well digital transformation in Australia is progressing shouldn’t be measured as a simple calibration of speed and performance: are we doing enough, are we going fast enough, are we actually transforming anything? Instead, we should strive towards a nuanced assessment which recognizes that digital transformation is part of a larger choreography of change, defined by the four points of the diamond, in which governments are part victim, part agent.

We need to shift our focus from modernising technology towards meeting citizen (or customer) expectations of the performance of government in a digital age. The prize to be won is the restoration of trust and legitimacy in government and the ability to harness the power and creativity of the public sector for inclusive prosperity. — Martin Stewart-Weeks and Simon Cooper

Martin Stewart-Weeks is the principal of Public Purpose Pty Ltd, working at the intersection of policy, public sector reform, technology and innovation. He has been a Ministerial advisor, public servant and advisor and consultant, including with Cisco. 

Simon Cooper is a Director who specialises in the digital transformation government and customer service strategy for a Big Four consultancy in Sydney. He has advised and delivered digital transformation with over 40 government agencies around the world including as a public servant with the UK’s Home Office. 

For a deeper dive, follow this link to see the book: Are We There Yet? The Digital Transformation of Government and the Public Sector in Australia, Longueville Media 2019.

(Picture credit: Death to the stock photo)

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