Why government-driven digital transformation is a train wreck


Government-driven digital transformation has become another catch-all notion for everything that its advocates would like to imagine it is, not unlike what was experienced with big data.

These same advocates are tireless in their prognostications about the virtues and disruptive effects of digital government and yet cannot define these in terms of tangible outcomes, let alone measure them.

All of this hyping of the notion of digital transformation has set expectations so high that when reality does come to the forefront, it is clear that few, if any, of the promises made could ever be realisable.

This is basically the case with all of the major government-driven digital transformation initiatives around the world. Each is positioned as game changing and disruptive in terms of impact and immensely beneficial to the economy and citizens’ lives, but this has not been the case.

>See also: The UK Government’s Transformation Strategy

What has happened to these once-noble initiatives is that all have been whipsawed by politics and politicians, and driven to failure by feckless bureaucrats and civil servants – with a number of contractors thrown in for good measure.

This toxic mix of politics, fecklessness and incompetence has produced some major train wrecks in terms of cost-benefit analysis and positive societal impacts. The three most visible of these are in the UK, the US and Australia, and their fate is seen by many as a pre-cursor to others on the horizon.

As with all train wrecks, there is plenty for everyone to gawk at afterwards and espouse opinions about, and in some respects lessons to be learned.

My analysis of these failures indicates that there are typically three major clues to these impending disasters, which were either ignored or not sufficiently addressed.

1. Strategy

For any major initiative to be successful, there needs to be a well-thought-out strategy and companion execution plan. It cannot be an afterthought, constantly changing or something written on a Post-it note and stuck up on the wall.

Strategic planning is typically the domain of senior leadership (who are usually accountable for the outcomes being achieved), not a bunch of techno moonbeams sitting around in a room. It requires careful analysis of the current state, a view as to the future and the rationale for ‘why we must change’.

It must always be built on a strong foundation and have tangible outcomes defined for delivery and measurement afterwards. It needs to identify the funding required and resources needed. It must also be forthright and objective in characterising the risks associated with its execution. There is no free lunch.

2. Leadership

Big ideas and big projects like digital transformation require leadership from the top down. These leaders must be empowered to succeed and yet accountable for success. Those are hard requirements to meet in politics or the civil service due to the constantly changing winds, continuous reshuffling and entrenched bureaucracies that must be contended with. Continuity of leadership is the single biggest risk that must be managed, and yet is the one given short shrift at every turn. A constant stream of feckless ‘leaders’ will ensure a train wreck every time.

See also: The digital transformation of the UK public sector

3. Competencies

What makes someone a good politician, civil servant or technologist does not necessarily make them competent at driving strategy or transformation.

Cheerleaders, power grabbers and social experimenters are not competent at either of these disciplines, and yet in virtually all cases have key leadership roles in these failed programmes but no personal accountability.

Digital is a rallying cry for all governments. It could be a lot more than that for their citizens if they would simply focus on strategy, leadership and competencies as critical success factors in any digital transformation.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...