Public sector transformation: government departments rely upon ‘legacy’ systems

The pandemic has triggered a great wave of digital transformation across the entire private sector, and over the last year, the changes we have witnessed since the beginning of COVID-19 – from flexible working, increased connectivity, and digital channels – are likely to last long term. Yet, the public sector, government departments in particular, appear to be some way behind in their transformation programmes, and have struggled with this transition.

As revealed in a study conducted by Deloitte (UK), 51% of UK government agencies say that digital trends are improving their organisation’s ability to respond to threats and opportunities, however, 75% agree that their digital capabilities fall well behind that of the private sector. Indeed, the same report revealed that civil service leaders were looking to improve efficiency, processes and data-led decision making (65%). However, despite their great promises, many have struggled to deliver effective transformation programmes.

The UK Government’s transformation ‘legacy’

As indicated in a recent report by the National Audit Office (NAO), the UK government has been performing rather poorly with regards to digital or ‘business’ change for quite some time. It stated that public bodies need to deliver high quality digital services as the country becomes increasingly digital. However, there is a gap between what the government ‘intends’ to achieve and what it actually delivers for its citizens and service users. In fact, there has been a ‘consistent pattern of underperformance’ in digital delivery.

The report suggested this was often the result of senior officials or decision makers approaching change programmes without necessarily having a clear idea of what technology to implement, and only a small proportion of senior officials in government have first-hand experience of delivering real digital business change. According to a more recent investigation by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), the pandemic has revealed the ‘legacy’ IT issues across the public sector. The slow progress in tackling poor data structures and inefficiencies across government departments has had a clear impact on decision-making throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The committee suggested that the current crisis has highlighted the need for higher quality data and improved services across the public sector.

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Why digital transformation programmes fail

The extent of the skills gap across government departments is well documented. Whilst digital transformation offers many advantages, that does not necessarily mean it is easy to define, plan or execute. Indeed, NAO’s report suggested that civil service leaders and senior officials perhaps lack the experience when it comes to delivering such complex and multifaceted programmes, which are typical of the private sector. In fact, it implied too many leaders prioritise ‘technology’ as opposed to establishing a well-defined strategy, and therefore, implement the wrong digital solutions.

The problem lies with how government departments approach digital transformation in the first place. Many leaders simply do not have a clear understanding of the outcomes that digital transformation can and should drive, and throughout COVID-19, these initiatives have likely been rushed. Furthermore, change is often made without considering the teams involved and how this will affect their job role. Indeed, Conga’s research found 92% of organisations with a digital transformation strategy in place have experienced barriers to the process, whether resistance to change from the workforce or from management.

It is vital employees are on board from the start and realise the need for change, in order to ensure wider adoption across an organisation. Leaders need to reassure teams that technology is in fact their ally and explain how the particular digital solution will help them in their roles. In fact, it is often best practice to discuss business change programmes across departments prior to implementation – leaders may be unaware of current processes or inefficiencies, and employees can offer valuable insight into how communication, or data-sharing could be improved across teams.

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Government transformation requires a different approach

The digital transformation of government will be a journey. As recent reports have indicated, ‘digitally savvy’ leadership is a real game changer – digitally maturing each government department will no doubt prove a tremendous challenge. Political leaders need to reconsider their current operational model and where a particular solution would be best suited or where a certain technology may be better placed to improve overall operability. Without stepping back and reviewing their current operational model, what works or what needs improving, how can senior officials really understand which solution is best suited for their chosen department or sector?

Leaders should ideally seek expert advice from an experienced consultant, who can guide them through a tailored digital transformation programme according to the needs of the government department or public office. Ideally, someone who has experience in leading large-scale digital transformation programmes, specialising in a particular industry or sector. Drawing upon their experience, consultants can help leaders establish their ‘digital maturity,’ which is critical to understanding where the team or department currently stands in its digital transformation journey.

Together, they can review the current operational model step by step, assess its suitability, and removing any inefficiencies or pain points along the operations cycle. Only then will business leaders have a clear understanding of how and where change needs to occur and what the next stage of their digital transformation journey should be. The consultant can then work with them to establish clear business objectives and add the appropriate technology to help deliver these objectives.

Digital transformation must be treated as a continuous journey. At a basic level, it is all about reconsidering the relationship between people, processes, and data, establishing a pathway that connects all these variables. Each agency will proceed through these stages of digital maturity at different rates depending on the complexity of their structures and, of course, some will have to go back several stages to tackle problems of efficiency. As agencies progress along their digital transformation journeys, they will continue to identify further processes or inefficiencies that need to be reviewed or fine-tuned, with the overall goal of establishing true data intelligence.

Written by Ash Finnegan, digital transformation officer at Conga

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