Musings on the Digital Revolution (or eleven thoughts on what digital transformation might mean for the public service) – pt 3

(Part 2 can be found here)

7. Digital innovation begets more digital innovation, but who approved it?

Innovation is an evolving practice. It is an exponential technology – it builds upon what has gone before. Each wave allows for new options.

Digital innovation is different to industrial innovation. It is a faster, more iterative practice. Design thinking, virtual environments and 3D printing allow for much more rapid realisation of ideas and testing and refinement. Crowd-funding and just-in-time global supply chains allow for an individual to have an idea and bring it to fruition relatively quickly.

Digital innovation will likely continue to be faster and more constant. A system with more interlinked players, each having the potential for more meaningful influence and impact on the system, means that the need for others to respond will increase. One change will equal the need for multiple other changes, which in turn beget the need for more changes. The system may reach a new equilibrium at some stage, but before then each innovation will be like a marble hitting other marbles, that in turn hit other marbles, and so on.

Despite being unpredictable, the one constant of innovation is that it is about changing the status quo, which regardless of intent, is a political process. It is about value, about power, about allocation of resources, and shaping the future.

Constant innovation will, at times, be in uneasy tension with the political process. Who has accountability for the decisions involved in the innovation process, when it may be rapid and fluid? When does an innovation have democratic legitimacy?

If an innovation is small/incremental in nature, it might be presumed to be ‘safe’ or intrinsically approved as a democratic intervention. It might just be improving the capacity of the system to do what has been agreed – to do more with the same or fewer resources. However that in turn may be a political act – to maintain or improve a system, when not acting might have led to a more fundamental questioning of the current approach and whether it was appropriate.

Innovation that is at the service delivery front might also seem to be politically legitimate. Responding to user needs and making a service faster, more effective or more efficient may be seen as a proxy for democratically legitimate. However that presumes that there are not multiple choices that could be made between equally legitimate pathways. Who makes those decisions and when, or is the process seen as being ongoing with no actual considered assessments of alternatives?

Of course the public service also has a democratic responsibility to innovate – to not innovate is to deny the legitimate expectations of citizens and governments that improvements will be made.

This might seem an academic debate, however as the rate of innovation speeds up, and as innovations result in the need for further innovation, the public service may introduce many innovations that seem minor and are assumed as an inherent good. This may be a risky assumption. Innovation is a political process involving making choices between differing possibilities and disrupting the status quo. Innovation has political implications, not least that it creates value differently for different groups.

Innovation processes such as co-design, co-creation and co-production may be sufficient to ensure legitimacy for many innovation outcomes, but there is no guarantee. Increased complexity, a dynamic environment, and speed are likely to complicate the important questions of accountability, responsibility and legitimacy in the public service.

8. Stability is no longer inherently valuable

Show me a completely smooth operation and I’ll show you someone who’s covering mistakes. Real boats rock. Digital strikes at the core of many operational assumptions of the public service.

Constant innovation means constant change, and constant (re)negotiation. Constant innovation means engaging with divergence, navigating diverse assumptions, experiences and people. Constant innovation means questioning how the public service works.

Digital might mean looking at how others, non-traditional public servants, can enter the system quickly to add value, and possibly leave just as quickly. An example of this in practice is the Presidential Innovation Fellows program.

Digital might mean overcoming hierarchical traditions, and being able to tap into expertise and experience from those within the organisation and allowing them to lead projects. Digital might require different ways of remunerating and recognising talent, given a constantly shifting environment.

Digital might mean that organisations have to get used to constant restructuring or realignments, and faster turnover of high level staff, reflecting a faster moving environment. Reliance on closed networks and safe (career) choices may be risky, as an unpredictable context means that conservative guesses may be outpaced by reality.

For an institution built around stability, the public service may find digital challenging at an operational level until a new understanding has developed. Core practices and traditions in recruitment, in management, in briefing and approvals and delegations, in stakeholder management, in how policy and services are thought about – all of these and more will be questioned and possibly rethought.

9. The long tail

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

Not everywhere will engage with the digital shift at the same time. It will affect different people, sectors and organisations differently at different times.

Yet the public service will need to cater for all.

It may be challenging for organisations to cater to both ends of the spectrum at once. Considerably different processes, different understandings of how things work, and different attitudes will exist. While this might currently manifest as thinking about catering for online and non-online services, in the future the distinctions may be more nuanced and complex.

(Part 4 can be found here.)

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