How governments innovate digitally
How governments innovate digitally
Have you noticed how digital your relationship with the government has become? Just as we rarely need to visit the bank in person anymore for financial transactions, we also make fewer visits to physical government counters. Various governments at local, regional, federal and international levels are innovating and digitising at record speed. For an objective perspective, we consulted Lieselot Danneels, professor of e-governance at Ghent University. She is also involved in several Flemish government initiatives.
Lieselot Danneels is familiar with IT in government from various angles. As a systems analyst and process analyst at a consultancy firm, she worked on projects for governments. Later, she entered academia as a researcher at KU Leuven, Vlerick Business School and now Ghent University, with a specific focus on e-governments. She is also involved in a number of initiatives at the Flemish level, notably SolidLab and Digitaal Vlaanderen’s Digital Leaders Academy.
Why is the government digitising?
A thoroughly digitalised government benefits everyone:
- As a citizen, enterprise or association, it becomes a lot easier to request information or documents.
- The government itself is pushing for efficiency so that different services can work together better and budgets can be better deployed – and as a citizen, you can only be pleased about that.
- Governments’ digital building sites offer providers of products and services quite a few opportunities to facilitate and accelerate digital transformations.
Framework for e-government
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the digitisation of government. According to the Organisation for European Cooperation and Development (OECD), countries where strong digital foundations were not present suffered more severely from the pandemic. The OECD previously devised a framework that governments can use as a guideline for their digital strategy. Digitising at random makes little sense, so the OECD defined six dimensions on which governments can focus.
- Digital by design
- Data-driven public sector
- Government as a platform
- Open by default
“Governments use this framework at various levels,” says Lieselot Danneels. “For each dimension, governments can examine whether their people have the right competencies to start using the framework. To acquire these competencies, extra training can be provided, or advice can be sought from other governments. Similarly, they can decide to bring in external consultants if there are shortfalls.” The framework can also be used to check whether new projects meet the six dimensions, thus raising the ambition level of projects. The framework challenges governments to think more broadly and introduce more stringent objectives. “Most importantly, governments need to establish their own roadmap,” says Danneels, “and decide at which stage of their transformation they will tackle which dimensions.”
The OECD framework was drawn up primarily for national governments, but Danneels recently translated it to local governments too. “Platform thinking is far too high an aim for a municipality of some 10,000 inhabitants,” says Danneels. “For them, it’s important to think about which government platforms they want to deploy and how they will collaborate with other governments. They don’t have to build the platforms themselves; they can continue to work with the federal or regional offerings.” Research conducted by Danneels showed that local governments vary widely in digital maturity but scored well on ‘digital by design’ and how they use existing platforms.
Digital by design
Digital technology can be used to completely reinvent public services. “You can’t make everything digital for everyone,” says Danneels. “But if you automate as many things as possible, this will free up resources to optimally serve those without digital access.” Danneels also points out that digitisation must go beyond mere digitisation of existing processes.
Data-driven public sector
The government has a lot of data at its disposal. Becoming data-driven means using that data effectively to anticipate, plan and implement policies. The OECD framework refers to Australia, among others, where historical data from a hospital is used to predict how many patients will use the hospital, how urgent their treatment will be and which specialists should be present. By accurately predicting how many hospital beds are needed, the Australian government could save $23 million annually.
Government as a platform
Rather than digitising services one by one, governments are betting on digital ecosystems where services are offered on a common platform and data and tools are maximally reused. One example is My Citizen Profile, a government app that opens the door to a whole range of government services. Oftentimes, these platforms are still too internally focused. “That is certainly one of the criticisms,” says Danneels, “that it’s not about government as a platform, but a platform for the government. For the government, it’s quite a challenge to collaborate with external platforms, but it’s a path that needs to be followed.”
Open by default
A government is ‘open by default’ when it proactively starts informing, consulting and engaging citizens and partners in a bidirectional manner. “Open data is often seen as a government’s obligation to make datasets public. But the goal is for others or companies to do something with that data to create added value,” says Danneels. “It is not just about open data; it’s also about an open culture. How can agencies collaborate more and share expertise? How can tenders be made more open? How can governments adopt a start-up mentality, like Digipolis in Antwerp does, for example?”
Putting the needs and convenience of citizens first when working out processes and services is at odds with existing ‘inside-out’ thinking. “Governments can use techniques like user journeys, design thinking and UX design to focus on citizens.”
Making documents and data available digitally is one thing. Making sure the answer is ready before the question is even asked is a whole other dimension. A proactive digital government anticipates citizens’ needs, and takes care of some things automatically. “In countries like Finland and Estonia, the government defines a set of ‘life events’, such as birth, marriage or retirement. And then the government looks at what services citizens expect from the government at various levels.” This way, the government prevents citizens from having to go to multiple services for one life event and fill in new forms each time. An example at the level of the Flemish government is the ‘growth package’. The school allowance is paid automatically without parents having to apply for it. As a result, more families now receive the school allowance than before.
The supportive role of technology
Naturally, technology and emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and the Internet of Things all play a key role. And that’s also the challenge that TD SYNNEX and its community of resellers and vendors are taking up. “Resellers can make a big contribution to digitalisation by offering competencies that are currently not present. They can also think along with governments on the various dimensions to do things differently,” says Danneels.
“Technology supports these digital trajectories,” adds Michèle Brackenier of TD SYNNEX. “But it goes beyond mere tools. From our expertise and that of our partners, we can act as a trusted advisor and guide this transformation. The sooner we know what’s going on, the better we can provide advice. We live in a world of ecosystems, and we bring together different areas of expertise in our ecosystems. This collaboration is a good thing for our partners as well as for the various governments.”
What value(s) does the government create?
One domain Lieselot Danneels is also involved in is studying the value offered by governments and the role of IT in this. “On the one hand, there is the aspect of efficiency: how can we do as much as possible with so few resources? A second factor is reliability and how resilient a system is in times of crisis. But I also always look at democratic values like inclusiveness, equality and privacy protection. Younger generations definitely attach great importance to this.” In practice, these three trains of thought are not always all possible at the same time. “You can combine two; all three is difficult. But that’s a balance that policymakers have to strike.”