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Leading from the front: Why government must take the IT transformation lead

As the demands of an interconnected, disrupted future increase, the onus is on governments to keep up with their constituents.

Young professionals in corporate meeting surrounding laptop

A political moderate recognised for keeping a level head as European nations faced a swathe of economic and political upheavals, former Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt believes governments need to embrace openness in order to win back the trust of constituents.

“Throughout the world there is much criticism of political leadership for not being honest and open with their people,” Reinfeldt says. “Government authorities feel that distrust. The best way to restore trust is being more transparent, and technology provides that opportunity.”

Reinfeldt, who was PM from 2006 to 2014, notes that the digital revolution is delivering unparalleled access to information and services, yet a failure to embrace the opportunity for openness and transparency has resulted in unprecedented levels of mistrust.

“It’s for governments to decide ‘we want to be part of this increased openness’ and if that is the path they take, governments can play a leading role in making digitalisation happen in their communities.”

He warns that public administrators who fail to grasp people’s expectations that government services be as accessible as online banking or retail will only entrench that distrust, Reinfeldt warns.

“The challenge for public administration is to understand that in our day and age, information is global and it’s coming to everyone in a way which we have not seen before,” Reinfeldt says. “There is a call from the people for more open data from government.”

Three crucial components

San Francisco global innovation expert Chris Vein says the role of technology in government is both a leadership challenge and responsibility. As a former chief innovation officer at World Bank and former deputy chief technology officer for US Government Innovation, Vein has spent a significant part of his career observing and analysing an increasingly complex political environment.

“The range and complexity of products and services in government is unlike any sector in the world,” says Vein. “As expectations of government services grow – as the need to do it more cheaply, better and faster grows – it will create a whole different set of products and services that can be enabled by technology.”

The three essential components of achieving digital transformation within the public sector, according to Vein, are leadership, culture and implementation.

“The challenge for any leader is to create a vision and to persuade us to follow that vision,” Vein says. “To care enough to work toward that vision; to create a culture where everybody’s working together and co-creating solutions; and lastly to implement change in ways that take advantage of technology but are not driven by technology.”

 

“The range and complexity of products and services in government is unlike any sector in the world. As expectations of government services grow – as the need to do it more cheaply, better and faster grows – it will create a whole different set of products and services that can be enabled by technology.”

Chris Vein, former Chief Innovation Officer, World Bank

State government steps up

While the response is far from homogenous, there are indications that some governmental organisations recognise the impact technology is having and its close connection with service delivers.

Armed with a mandate for change and a budget for capital works of $41.5 billion over the next four years, Tim Reardon, secretary, Transport for NSW, has an intimate understanding of these challenges. When Reardon was appointed last year, Premier Mike Baird announced: “A priority of this government is to embrace innovation and new technology to drive excellence in customer service.”

Noting that NSW’s population is projected to grow from 7.5 million to 9.5 million over the next 15 years, Reardon says the “Holy Grail in transport” is a fully integrated system. Technology, he says, provides the opportunity to create “the next generation of transport”.

“We need to embrace disruption [such as ride-sharing services and driverless cars] which will continue to occur,” Reardon says. “You will never be able to predict them all. Our job is to provide safe, reliable services that give great customer satisfaction.”

Reardon says customers need “much more empowerment” about how they use transport services. Existing services such as the Opal public transport smartcard, digital driver’s licensing and information apps are “just the tip of the iceberg”, he says.

“We will never look the same again after the next few years,” Reardon says. “As we improve things, customers’ expectations will increase so we need to move with them. Every opportunity we get to improve our service delivery and connect communities we will take because their expectations heighten ours.

City council leads the way

In addition to this there are also interesting trends in this direction emerging from local governments around Australia.

The City of Joondalup in Perth has an economic development plan that positions the city as a “knowledge economy” in a bid to attract technology companies to “add to the social and economic vibrancy of the city”. The city has also developed a digital strategy that informs its own use of technology.

Jamie Parry, director, governance and strategy, says the City is keen to exploit the benefits of the internet of things.

“IOT is becoming more prevalent in our decision making in everything that we do – digital first is becoming more of a way of thinking for all of our decision making and IOT is an important part of that,” Parry says.

“We are renowned for our liveability and community wellbeing in Joondalup. If there are IOT applications that can help us improve that wellbeing within the community, then we certainly want to take advantage of them.”

Moreover, according to Oliver Blain, the head of NSW Government at Telstra, these sorts of projects are only set to increase as government around the country steps out of the technological shadow once cast by the corporate sector.

“Government, for a while there, lagged behind enterprise and missed some of the digital advances we saw in private enterprise,” Blain says. “They’ve realised they underinvested and they’re actually going beyond where enterprise is and really taking advantage of technology to change the way they provide services.”


In summary
  • Government were lagging behind the private sector in digital integration, but now they’re starting to overtake the private sector in key areas
  • In the era of Wikileaks, inadequate data transparency will only lead to public distrust
  • Governments must be agile not only to embrace disruptors, but to integrate their strategies into systems and law
  • While automation will lower labour costs in key sectors, governments need to become good at anticipating the need for more services in our connected future

Digital technology and cloud computing means government agencies have an unprecedented opportunity to create citizen-based online services.

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