This is the second instalment in our series on digital government. The first article explained how technology could support an uplift in performance in policy development, service design and delivery and corporate services.
Technology is having a transformative impact on government agencies. To effectively deal with the challenges and opportunities, departmental secretaries and their direct reports need to answer five key questions.
The answers, which will drive the long-term success of the department in a digital age, can be the basis for a common agenda across functions and departments.
Technology-enabled transformation needs a model that reflects the context: technology’s impact is broader than ever, there are multiple simultaneous projects, delivery times are shortening, and executives are seeking to ensure the multiple projects create the future they envision. There are three models to drive enterprise-level transformation:
There is no guidebook for choosing a model. The decision should be based on the business context, the organisational culture (both current and potential future), the change sought by the CEO or secretary, and a judgement of what model will make change stick. These models can be a starting point for the decision. In all the models, supporting governance and decision-making structures need to be right. These are driven by context and depend both on the model and on what will be most effective for the organisation.
Choose the traditional or cross-functional structures that are right for the organisation. With a rich history in government, traditional structures have evolved to manage risk, to withstand the scrutiny typically applied to government actions, and to balance diverse objectives and stakeholders. These structures should only be changed carefully. But a cross-functional organisational structure undoubtedly brings benefits in efficiency, responsiveness and speed in driving an enterprise-wide transformation agenda that may span many years.
There are three choices:
The choice is not straightforward. To support decision-making, the UK government has developed a course to teach civil servant teams how to work in cross-functional ways. Similar group learning may be necessary for teams as they transition to a cross-functional work style.
Integrate policy development, service design and service delivery. Integration can occur on new activities – such as developing a new policy, designing the business rules for a new service based on the policy objectives, and designing the service-delivery process – and also on existing policies and services. Collaboration from the beginning means trade-offs among customer satisfaction, efficiency and policy objectives can be made early and fast. It also makes it easier to achieve buy-in across stakeholders as they can influence and shape from the beginning. For example, Transport for NSW has established the Future Transport Accelerator, enabling innovators and start-ups to collaborate directly with the agency.
Understand the citizen’s life and experience with government, so customer needs and preferences can drive improvement. Historically, changes in services were driven by individual policy imperatives or incremental efforts to improve individual services. But now we need to develop a holistic understanding of citizens by segmenting them based on personal attributes – such as age, location (urban vs regional vs rural), life events (getting married, having children, change of employment status) – and based on government experience attributes – such as number and kind of government services accessed, interaction history, any known issues or decisions pending. With this segmentation, services can be developed or improved with citizen preferences and impact at the centre.
Across the ideation cycle – conceptualisation, design and development of customer experiences – harness human-centred design and agile ways of working. This will keep the customer at the centre, improve responsiveness to changes in context and maintain a focus on outcomes and outputs. Methodologies should be tailored to the context, culture and business imperatives of the organisation. Roll out these methodologies at the right pace because the capacity for change and the maturity of business and technology capabilities are factors in achieving lasting impact. There is much we can learn from the UK Government, which has developed a service manual for agile delivery, including principles, tools and governance.
Invest in driving citizen adoption of digital service. When a new digital service is built, governments generally cannot steer customers to exclusively use digital channels, unlike the private sector, which can turn off in-person or contact centre channels for simple transactions. Education and awareness campaigns are key levers for governments to encourage rapid take-up of digital services. These campaigns, which can often leverage the in-person and contact centre workforce to persuade customers to migrate to digital channels, need resources. The Augmented Intelligence Centre of Excellence in Canberra, an initiative of the Department of Human Services, aims to provide leadership in the use of virtual assistants with the aim of enhancing the experience for citizens interacting with government.
Before exploring what leaders should do, we need to characterise the change caused by technology.
Firstly, for government departments familiar with a particular way of working, difficult-to-change IT systems and in-person delivery, the change is not quick. Secondly, change is pervasive, so there will be significant change to every activity of the organisation. Thirdly, employees are concerned that digitisation and automation will lead to job losses or a strenuous requirement to learn new skills.
In this situation leaders must clarify the destination, maintain momentum and provide support:
The Federal Government has recently invested in supporting leaders and the broader workforce during times of great change. Building Digital Capability intends to better skill the Australian Public Service to support digital transformation, including through developing specialist digital skills, transforming agency culture through leadership, and attracting and retaining digital talent. It offers a program for senior executives that empowers them to transform their agencies by initiating and driving a digital culture. Such training can give leaders guidance on navigating through the challenges.
Corporate and enabling functions are vital to driving technology-led transformation. Therefore the model for transformation needs to manage them well.
There are two models to manage corporate functions. A blend may be most suitable:
The model must align with whole-of-government initiatives, such as shared services programs, which add complexity, especially when they involve services with a large workforce, such as IT or finance.
Look out for the final instalment in our series on digital government, in which we explore the capabilities that are essential for successful digital transformation.
Get in touch to discuss how Nous can guide your thinking on the big questions for digital transformation.
 APS Jobs, First Assistant Director-General – Chief Transformation Officer, viewed April 2019
 IT News, BHP's big automation push creates new chief transformation officer, 1 March 2019
 GDS Academy, Agile for teams course description, accessed April 2019
 Transport for NSW, Future Transport Technology, accessed January 2023
 Gov.UK Service Manual, Agile delivery, accessed April 2019
 The Mandarin, APS centre of excellence to develop the next generation of robot public servants, 28 November 2018
 Australian Public Service Commission, Building Digital Capability, accessed April 2019
 Department of Finance, Shared Services Program, accessed April 2019