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

“We are experiencing a digital revolution. Revolutions are comprehensive. They affect all parts of the system.”

This was a key insight that I have been reflecting on since I heard it on 12 November 2014. That was when I attended Innovating the Public Sector: from Ideas to Impact, an OECD conference on public sector innovation, and heard Henri Verdier, Chief Data Officer, say those words (translated from French, so I’m paraphrasing).

I already knew this was true – the digital world is all around us and the changes are evident to see. It is already reshaping business models and economic and social processes. Yet I’m not sure I’d realised the full consequences of that truth.

Perhaps it was simply hearing someone from France talk about revolutions, but it prompted me to  consider what this digital revolution really meant. How a revolution, over time, affects how we think, how we understand things, and what we do and why.

Had I really thought about what digital would mean for all parts of society? Or if I had, had I really considered what the implications were?

Whatever the reason, this is something I have been thinking about since that conference.

The following are some of my reflections about what digital transformation might mean for the public service and its operating environment. It is intended as a provocation or an exploration, rather than trying to predict or be prescriptive about what might or should happen.

It is also a personal piece. While it does draw on my experience within the public service and working on public sector innovation, on countless conversations with many people, and some fairly eclectic reading, it is a personal reflection.

1. Digital delivery is fast, but digital thinking might not be


The digital world is faster than the industrial world. In the digital world, it is possible to develop, test, implement and scale an idea, product or platform quickly. This very aspect may actually work to slow down the policy process.

In government the delivery of services has traditionally been slower moving than policy. The policy intent could be worked out quickly, but the supporting measures to implement could take a long time. Coming up with a new policy idea, while never easy, was something that could be done quickly. Delivering on those policy ideas was slower. Supporting infrastructure, systems, processes would need to be developed, capability built, and resources marshalled.

This is still the case in much of what the public service does, but a digital world will likely change that, making it easier to make adjustments to service delivery relatively quickly.

Digital platforms and networks can be redone, repurposed or redirected far faster than previous soft infrastructures. The capabilities to scale up and roll out initiatives, provide information and new products/services are now widely available, whether in the private, not-for-profit, citizen or government sectors. The necessary skills and resources in the wider system can, in principle, be connected and delivered quickly.

Yet those same capabilities can act to slow and complicate the policy development process. The digital policy process is likely to be even more contested, interlinked and dependent on agents outside of the public sector.

In a digital world it is easier for other actors to put forward their own ideas, suggestions or criticisms. It is often easier for vested interests to weigh in on the policy process and to point out and publicise the downside of any changes. Digital platforms mean that others can promulgate their own critiques or assessments of government policy, in a way that might once have been limited to large organisations, associations or think tanks. A meme or a social media campaign can be as deadly to an idea or initiative as mainstream media critiques. Crowdfunding can allow ceasing government advisory bodies to continue their work, or for individuals to write a book specifically on critiquing and assessing government policy.

The shift to digital is not the only force acting on the agility of the policy development process. Forces such as deregulation, globalisation, and increasing dependencies between policy areas all contribute in different ways. But the shift to digital is arguably instrumental in speeding up delivery of services.

What might the shift in this dynamic between service delivery and policy mean?

One implication it suggests is that it will be more important for the public service to be aware of, and engage with, policy issues early. While big data and real-time analytics may help with this, speculative approaches such as horizon scanning, and insight methods such as design thinking, are also likely to be valuable. Some of these approaches and tools may well be formalised by governments, such as the predictive intelligence-gathering platform, The Good Judgement Project. Anything that helps identify emerging trends, and enable consideration before an issue crystallises in public discourse, may help provide the necessary additional agility to the policy process.

2. The digital version of products are services (relationships)


In the digital world products are becoming services (which in turn are about relationships). Policy has recently had many of the characteristics of a product approach – developing, launching, delivering – that may no longer be suitable. What might policy as a service look like?

Digital products are becoming services. Software is increasingly cloud-based, where updates are regular or continuous. Software as a service offers many advantages over static products for both consumers and providers. It also changes the nature of the interaction from being transactional (e.g. a one off purchase) to ongoing (e.g. an ongoing relationship).

This same trend can be seen in regards to many other products, even those not purely information-based such as music or books. For instance, Tesla Motors upgrade its cars with over-their-air updates, making the relationship with the customer much closer. The Internet of Things will presumably make such practices commonplace. The decision to purchase or enter a relationship with a provider will be about longer-term capabilities and how their offering fits with the wider ecosystem, not just what is available right then and there.

If we apply this shift in perspective to the public service, the implications for service delivery are perhaps not that different. Services may have a stronger relationship component than previously, and service design will likely continue to incorporate practices such as design thinking and agile in order to be sufficiently responsive.

But what of policy?

Policy has traditionally been product-like. It is something that is developed and then announced as a distinct ‘thing’ – “this is our policy”. While the delivery takes time, and there may be (product) reviews and decisions to amend or discontinue, policy at its core has been a product in nature.

If we consider policy as a service, what might that look like?

Presumably it means regular or even constant iteration and adjustment. It means continual feedback and testing. Rather than product launch/policy announcements, it means regular updates and changes of features. It means less one-size fits all, and more consideration of individual circumstances and situational contexts. It is informed by real time data about delivery and usage, performance and reception. It is not discrete from delivery. Those delivering it, receiving it, or co-producing the service will have a stronger stake in deliberations.

Policy as a service will likely require a different approach to, and conception of, the policy making process. Within the Australian context, it might imply that an administrative separation of policy and programme may be hard to maintain. It also poses challenges to how the public service thinks of itself and its work.

3. Digital and legislation may not be a comfortable fit


The legislative process, for many good reasons, is relatively slow, defined and discrete. How might legislation evolve in a digital world where speed, responsiveness and agility are prized?

A world of agile and lean, a world of iteration, testing and data, raises questions for the process and understanding of legislation and regulation.

Quickly adapting and updating policies and services can be difficult when legislation in place. Legislation is about precision and definition which can prohibit or limit quick change. Speed is not an inherent good in the legislative process or for the public sector more broadly. Care has to be given to make sure that unintended consequences are minimised or limited, that fairness and administrative due process are considered.

But in a digital world, more emphasis may be placed on the ability to respond quickly and adjust settings at short notice. New technologies, new business models, new ways of thinking, and thinking of policy as a service may require changes to the idea of legislation. How might a legislative cycle allow for fast iteration, for repeated disruptive technologies and business models, for rapidly evolving social understandings of problems and issues?

While there is unlikely to be a single or correct response to such shift, some possible options suggest themselves:

  • Deregulation may be one approach. Allowing external systems (such as self-regulation, reputation markets, or targets/quotas) to take the responsibility for responding to the change may be a work-around for a government process that is either ill-suited, or unable to adjust quickly
  • Building in the capacity for exceptions or temporary exemptions might be another option. Giving the executive or regulatory agencies the ability to allow experiments to occur might provide any flexibility needed without removing or modifying core elements of the system
  • Identifying challenges early and considering what leeway is already within existing laws is another. An example of this in practice can be seen with the UK Government and its Fixing the Foundations (2015) report  which identifies that it will “require departments to work with regulators to publish Innovation Plans … These will set out how legislation and enforcement frameworks could adapt to emerging technologies and disruptive business models.” Being forward looking and picking up on legislative tensions before they are realised may allow the current approach to continue
  • Speeding up the current system and looking at how to speed up the process of forming, reviewing and agreeing legislation
  • In the future it might also be possible to look at using big data and intelligent systems to legislate by parameters, with built-in stabilisers or feedback systems that allow or restrict activity depending on desired outcomes.

Whatever form it takes (and some other interesting options are put forward here), it is interesting to consider how the legislative process might need to evolve to reflect a digital world.

(Part 2 can be found here)

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