Digitizing the public sector: Five guiding steps

From shovelling dirt boxes...

A typical from-horror-to-success story on digital transformation in the public sector: The government agency has a monolithic system that’s expensive to change. They’re stuck and unable to move on. They want to upgrade, modularize and standardize, all at the same time. They want a CMS capable of hosting modules from multiple suppliers, with no lock-in. Vendors and service providers get together to massage and repackage the dirt in the system. They shovel the dirt into small boxes that they move around and rearrange. They isolate functional parts of the system, take out single boxes and improve them.

Although the gap is closing slowly, the public sector tends to lag behind the private sector when it takes on the big battle of digital transformation. The reasons are known:
-The public sector has to work within legislative boundaries and this slows things down.
-The public sector focuses more on the products and services themselves, rather than on the ways these are produced and consumed.

As the Boston Consulting Group noted: “Governments need to go beyond digitizing existing processes and services. They need to harness the power of digital technologies and data to fundamentally re-imagine and transform the business models of government.”

“It’s bad to just digitize,” said Michael Aemisegger, CEO of Quatico, a Magnolia partner that has successfully implemented projects for Open Government Zurich and the Canton of Basel. “Public administrations should take the perspective of citizens - their customers. They shouldn’t just carve existing processes and services in stone. They should start thinking about the ‘citizen journey’, have users in mind, detect where they can add value.”

The challenges are more organizational rather than technological, he explains: “How do you measure value without a market process? How do you know what to deliver next? Administrations can’t compare, as they’re often the only provider. They don’t necessarily think in terms of the products and services they’re offering.”

Aemisegger outlined these five strategic steps for public administrations aiming to move on:

1. Mirror the mega-trends in the private sector - dev/ops and cloud. Create a dev/ops culture in your IT department.

2. Know how to prioritize your backlog. Keep your feature set small. Appoint a gatekeeper or product owner.

3. Set the right architecture. Monolithic monsters are over. Separate responsibilities in different layers. Decouple front-end logic from data. Create reusable components. Rely on microservices.

4. You can’t do it alone or with just one supplier. Create spaces for collaboration between web agencies, data processors, system integrators. Provide sandboxes where they can play and innovate. You define the rules and set the boundaries.

5. Create a streamlined, dedicated unit for your digital transformation initiatives (gov.uk is a good example). Get away from fear to a learning culture. Manage and evolve through change.

... to playing in sandboxes

“The main challenge is defining value and knowing what to deliver,” said Aemisegger. “Governments are at different stages of an inevitable evolution. In the public sector digital landscape of the future, layers, concerns and responsibilities - for data, processes, microservices - will be separate. I’d like to see it as a joyful playground where all play happily together because they can, in a well-engineered service architecture.”