6 Strategies for Transforming Public Services Towards a Digital Future

Piers Kelly
September 1, 2022

The digital transformation of public services is accelerating. Citizens expect government services to be as easy and convenient as apps on their smartphones. Digital technologies are making this a reality, but transforming the public sector requires innovation to change the behaviours and incentives of the people who work there, as well as the citizens they serve. These challenges require new strategies for successful digital transformations. Here are six strategies for your transformation towards a digital future.

Achieving the right outcomes

Transformed public services are those that achieve the right outcomes for citizens. When a service is transformed, it means that the key priorities of the service are clearly defined and communicated to all stakeholders in order to drive continuous improvement and innovation. For example, funding for public healthcare should be based on population health needs, not on age or income. Well-resourced and adequately staffed public schools should provide children with an education that meets their individual needs, not just prepare them to pass standardised tests. This approach achieves better outcomes by tailoring services to the specific needs of citizens while also ensuring government expenditure is wisely. Transformed services can be as simple as changing the way a program is managed or as complex as reorganising a sector to meet new challenges. But regardless of the scope of change, there are five essential qualities that make all successful transformations possible:

  1. Clarity — service leaders must be able to define clearly what success looks like for their program

  2. Commitment — leaders must have a strong desire to see their program succeed

  3. Alignment — stakeholders must have buy-in from across the organisation and align with broader business goals

  4. Environment - leaders need to build an environment that fosters creativity and risk-taking, where people feel empowered to try new things

  5. Capacity — leaders need sufficient resources and support systems in place to deliver on their promises

Build sustainable digital infrastructure

The foundation of any digital transformation is a sustainable digital infrastructure that provides the foundation for new digital services. The goal should be to create a “digital flywheel” that enables the agency to develop, deploy, and scale new digital services at relatively low cost and with relatively high speed. Digital infrastructures include everything from data platforms that integrate data from different internal and external sources, to authentication systems that allow people to use their government services online, to the network and cyber security systems that keep the data and services safe from threats. The goal of digital infrastructure is to make it as easy as possible to integrate new services. This is not a one-time effort: Digital infrastructures need to be built to last, so they must be designed with long-term sustainability in mind. Targeted investment in digital infrastructure can help government services meet the growing demand for digital services and deliver better outcomes for citizens.

Lead with automation

In the past, government services have focused mainly on providing human assistance to customers. Yet automation, such as the use of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), can transform government services and make them more efficient and accessible. For example, governments can use automation to process payments and make tax deductions, to verify identities, and to route and prioritise requests and complaints. Automation can also help make services more personalised by combining data from different sources to customise information for citizens. These innovations can make government services more accessible to more people, including people with disabilities and low-income citizens who may not have access to human assistance. Government agencies should therefore lead with automation, exploring how AI and other advanced analytics can transform their services, improve the lives of citizens while reducing costs, and also freeing up human talent to focus on higher-value tasks.

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Foster data-driven decision making

Many digital services generate large volumes of data that can help improve service delivery and decision making across the organisation. For example, a digital service that provides information about government benefits could generate data about the number of visits or the duration of visits. This data could be used to identify bottlenecks in the system and inform future design decisions. Yet many public services continue to collect data in silos, preventing them from benefiting from the insights they generate. Individuals, services, and systems need to be “data-ready,” meaning they are able to receive and use data across the organisation. Data-driven decision making is most effective when it is culture-driven: The organisation needs to have a strong culture in which data-driven decision making is expected and rewarded, even across silos.

Digital skills at scale

Digital transformation will require a new generation of civil servants who are ready to deploy and manage new digital services. Yet many government organisations struggle to hire staff who have the skills needed to lead digital transformation. There is a skills gap in government between departments as well as between government and the private sector. This challenge has led some governments to partner with the private sector to access talent and expertise. One way to address the skills gap is to invest in public service design (PSD) — the process of transforming public services by combining insights from user research and design thinking. PSD is not only about redesigning services but also about transforming the skills and mindset of the people who work within government agencies. PSD also means investing in the right type of training so people have the skills they need to lead digital transformation within their agencies.

Partner with the private sector

One of the most important ways to accelerate your digital transformation is to partner with the private sector. This could include partnering with tech companies to create apps for your services, or it could mean engaging with the business community on broader issues such as workforce development.

Digital transformation is a huge opportunity for the business community to partner with government and help deliver better services. This is an area where governments can learn from one another. What are the models of partnership that are working? What are the best ways to engage with the private sector on issues like workforce development? These are critical questions that will help accelerate your digital transformation. These partnerships are important for more than just digital transformation. They can also be a way to address other challenges facing government, such as rising energy costs, climate change and healthcare innovation.

Many governments are partnering with the private sector to build public-private partnerships (PPPs), in order to design, build, and operate new digital services. In turn, the government brings the data and the mandate to provide public services for the citizens. PPPs can bring together partners from the public and private sectors to collaborate on digital transformation.

Conclusion

The digital transformation of public services is accelerating. Digital technologies are making this a reality, but transforming public agencies will require new tactics for successful digital transformations. Aim to achieve the right outcomes, build sustainable digital infrastructure, lead with automation, foster data-driven decision making, develop digital skills at scale, and partner with the private sector.

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