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Public Sector leaders: 3 things you must understand about digital transformation

By James Howlett - 19 Jul 2019

As an organisational goal, digital transformation has been doing the rounds for three years or more now. It may be suffering slightly from fatigue – in need of reinvigoration through better understanding.

The idea that “Digital transformation has been mostly cosmetic” – reported in August 2016 by following research at Brunel University – is one we have mentioned in a previous post. The research also drew comment and analysis by the Society of Information Technology Management (Socitm) which went on to describe three key ‘delusions’ in digital technology deployment:

  • digital transformation is about cutting costs (Socitm cites the need for additional resources for development, maintenance, security and redesign for new channels)
  • everything has to be user-focused (which Socitm argues compromises real transformation of government processes)
  • technology alone transforms processes (Socitm points that Government and public administration are rooted in nations’ constitutions, in policy and in law, and consequently much more than technology is needed to rationalise them).

Also this year, Microsoft published a report on digital transformation from its study of organisation leaders (‘Digital Transformation: The Age of Innocence, Inertia or Innovation?’). Asked a question about how the organisation thinks about digital transformation, 42% of respondents viewed digital transformation as a ‘customer-facing exercise’, and 36% as a ‘technology enabling exercise’ (they could select a maximum of 2 responses from 8 options). These responses would appear to support the second and third ‘delusions’ identified by Socitm above, especially considering the next most selected response (20%) was ‘technology innovation/experimentation’.

A later question from the Microsoft report asks the public sector what the potential barriers are to successful digital transformation. The top response (38%) was budget constraints, which would seem to paradoxically negate and yet indulge the first ‘delusion’ above. Budget concerns can indeed stop a project from getting underway, and yet once underway the idea of costcutting can place unrealistic ROI demands on a digital transformation project.

With all of that in mind, here are the 3 things that public sector leaders simply have to understand about digital transformation:

It should be about so much more than the public face of your organisation.

  1. True beauty is much deeper than skin. Digital transformation is about addressing processes, procedures and administration. If you deploy a funky new app or web form for your clients, only to print incoming data off when it arrives, you can’t call that digital transformation. Making life brighter or easier for your customers is all very well but if no-one in your organisation sees an internal efficiency gain then you’ve achieved little more than a cosmetic makeover.
  2. It isn’t cheap, and it might be (necessarily) disruptive. That’s if you’re serious about it. The very best digital solutions have far-reaching potential and no part of any internal process should be considered out of project scope until their inclusion is proven to be impractical. Whatever tech you are looking at, be open to exploring potential wider benefits beyond your initial brief.
  3. It is a continuum, not a one-shot silver bullet. Digital transformation projects should not be hailed with disproportionate fanfare, since they are simply a step in an ongoing journey. There is no point at which any organisation can declare: “Ta-da! We have digitally transformed! Everything is efficient now!” To imagine otherwise is delusional.

The true meaning of digital transformation is enabling transformative policy development. Making processes more robust, compliant, efficient, or faster at every point from start to finish. It is a gradual piecemeal process, made possible not only by evolving tech but evolving working practices. Perhaps a better term, therefore, would be digital evolution.

Digital Evolution

This term sounds better already, doesn’t it? It embodies a phenomenon that must inevitably happen (not least for survival), and does so gradually and thoughtfully. It takes the pressure off any one project to deliver unrealistic ROI and yet encourages innovation and progress across the organisation. So much more than a milestone project. Nothing indeed less than a key strategic approach to the future. This approach can and should be supported by all key personnel in public sector service.