Musings on the Digital Revolution (or eleven thoughts on what digital transformation might mean for the public service) – pt 2

(Part 2 – Part 1 can be found here.)

4. Digital is both convergent and fragmented

Siloed bureaucracy is ill-suited to cross-cutting issues that are experienced differently by fragmenting identities.

The digital world is one of convergence – issues are no longer easily categorised or separated, and hard divides become blurred. Services/products, users/providers, businesses/citizens – such distinctions are no longer clear cut. The realities of citizens’ lives are that they see and experience the world as interlinked – health, welfare, employment, education and industry are not separate.

At the same time, digital platforms make it easier for different interests and identities to coalesce as distinct groupings and to see themselves as communities of interest, whether it be around political views, religious beliefs or notions of self. Such groupings can make policy and service more complex, by contributing a greater range of differing expectations or views, and making it harder to find a unifying narrative or to establish common ground.

Policy and service delivery are being expected to reflect the reality of convergence and the expectation of whole-of-citizen/citizen-centred responses. Single entry points, portals, one-stop-shops and even moving to a single website are all being explored by governments. Less clear is how policy making can respond. The practicalities of policy making are that it is a process of trying to understanding discrete problems.

One indication of how this will be overcome is the growth of innovation ‘labs’ around the world, with Denmark’s MindLab being one of the first. These labs are platforms for bringing together different perspectives, methodologies and voices to investigate and understand issues. They offer an opportunity to frame problems (and possible responses) in new ways, without having to repurpose existing agencies or tinker with the machinery of government. A question remains as to how well these labs are equipped to integrate resulting insights back into a siloed bureaucracy. If a problem is looked at from a citizen/whole-of-government perspective, it is likely the resultant answers will be whole-of-government in nature. Entrenched institutional perspectives and processes may need to be overcome and/or removed to allow the space for such a new solution to be properly implemented.

Another option is Deloitte’s notion of ‘GovCloud’.

A cloud-based government workforce, or GovCloud, could comprise employees who undertake creative, problem-focused work. Rather than existing in any single agency, these workers could reside in the cloud, making them truly government-wide employees. Cloud teams could be directed by thinner agencies than those that exist today. Agencies and cloud teams could be supported by government-wide shared services that prevent the establishment of new, permanent structures by assisting with ongoing, routine work.”

Such infrastructure might help provide the flexibility to recombine capabilities in ways better suited to addressing system-wide issues. Some experimentation with this approach is already taking place.

A third alternative includes using initiatives that provide a forum and a process for drawing together relevant parties and actors and giving them the support and constraint needed to reach new ways of understanding and responding to problems. An example of this is the 90 Day Projects run in South Australia.

Whatever is done, the tendency to move away from a system of discrete functional organisations with individual systems and processes and vested interests in particular slices of problems is likely to accelerate.

5. Digital changes power dynamics


Digital systems are interdependent. Digital accelerates the growth and reach of technologies. Digital changes how governments interact with citizens, and how citizens interact with governments.

The public service is a professional environment. There are a high number of people who have undertaken tertiary education (in the Australian Public Service it is close to 60% and at a higher rate for new engagements). There is a lot of complex and complicated process, with associated jargon and abstract concepts. A professional identity is often built around competence, expertise, knowledge and familiarity with abstractions and with particular disciplines.

Taking a citizen-centred view often requires understanding the reality and nuance of the lives of actual citizens. It is not enough to prescribe behaviour for many intractable problems – the state needs to work with citizens to achieve sustainable and effective results for issues ranging from health, environment, or industry. These issues require the active engagement of those who are affected (e.g. the public service can rarely implement behavioural change).

Such an approach means that individual experience is seen not only as valid and legitimate but as a primary source of knowledge and truth. This does not always sit well with notions of professionalism and expertise, where those with the training and the formal knowledge have traditionally had the power.

Digital exacerbates this trend.

Firstly, digital makes codified knowledge far more accessible to a much wider audience. Individuals can access information about any topic or issue, and through platforms such as MOOCs (massive open online courses) can learn from some of the world’s best about nearly any topic.

Secondly, digital is fast, so that the growth in knowledge for nearly any topic or area of expertise is increasing at a rate that few, if any, will be able to keep up with. Professionals cannot be assured that they know all the latest in their field – indeed they can only be guaranteed that others will know something that they don’t.

Thirdly, digital (in conjunction with globalisation and other forces) is helping individuals access new capabilities and technologies that were once only available to large organisations or the state. This “consumerisation” of capability means that individuals can access and engage a diverse range of expertise, skills, audiences, funding and technology. An individual or small group may no longer need the support of companies or governments to do things such as helping protect endangered wildlife, to conduct research, or to attempt to address a global issue like ocean plastic pollution.

Structures (such as innovation labs) and methods (such as co-design) that are more suited to the digital environment are by nature flatter and value people’s experience and insights. A professional public service can find this challenging and uncomfortable.

In addition, a digital world is a networked world. Networks, as opposed to hierarchies, place more emphasis on individuals and groups rather than roles, position or organisations.

A digital world is also one of constant change, meaning that stories and experience are often a more valued teaching technique than codified knowledge which might not be directly translatable to a shifting environment.

In such a world – of social networks and published case studies – many individual public servants are more likely to have a public profile, either through social media, or as being identified with specific projects and initiatives. This can be challenging to traditionally hierarchical organisations where positions and roles are the defining characteristics. A lower level staff member may now have expertise, experience and recognition that higher positional level staff may not.

How might such a change be be reflected in organisational policies and processes such as workflows, briefing, staff development, recognition and remuneration?

A digital world therefore likely has very different power dynamics, both with stakeholders and clients and within organisations.

6. Digital winners take most

Digital is global. Digital is cheap. Digital winners win big.

Digital platforms gain value from participation, and the more people who use them, the more valuable they become to others. Facebook, Twitter, Google have all benefited from these network effects, as have many other companies. In the digital space, the winners get most, if not all, the benefit, making it hard for others to enter the market.

In this way first movers can play a significant role in shaping options and locking-in particular pathways (or at least stopping some other pathways being explored).

What might this mean for the public service?

Governments are playing in a global space and digital services need not be limited to citizens. Digital services may have minimal or no marginal cost, and governments may gain value from having a larger user base rather (for instance in terms of analytics, user insights, identifying trends or modelling outcomes).

An example of a government offering a service to those outside its country is already in practice with Estonia which offers “e-Residency” to non-residents/non-citizens.

“All of these (and more) efficient and easy-to-use services have been available to Estonians for over a decade. By offering e-Residents the same services, Estonia is proudly pioneering the idea of a country without borders.”

So there is a situation where:

  • Governments can easily offer many services to those in other countries for little to no cost by simply scaling up digital services that they offer to citizens
  • Governments may gain value from doing so by getting access to larger data sets and greater information flows (and possibly from the cachet of being seen as a global leader)
  • First mover advantages and network effects may mean that governments who “follow” are disadvantaged.

At the same time governments that move first may lock in pathways. For instance, services that are directed by user needs and behavioural insights may lock-in certain behavioural patterns or embed particular values or beliefs that are later very hard to change. The social mores and understanding of the citizen’s role will be shaped by the platforms and digital services that are introduced. Without consideration of longer-term aims and shifts, governments may inadvertently enter into pathway dependencies that will be hard to change later.

What are the implication of this?

One interpretation is that governments will need to have a continual look to the future(s), to consider what is possible and which scenarios are likely to be more preferable, and ensure that decisions about platforms and services are made in that context. Tools such as horizon scanning, scenario planning and causal layered analysis may assist with this.

(Part 3 can be found here.)

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