There is no doubt that the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated a move to digital across sectors. As Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella noted during his company’s April 2020 earnings call, “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months".1 This trend has been particularly visible at all levels of government.
Industrial Age governance, which still dominated public sector organisations throughout the last decade and acted as a brake on digital transformation, was quickly disengaged. As a result, departments across national, state and local governments are today routinely doing things remotely that they would have considered impossible just a few months ago such as parliaments holding virtual meetings or whole services being developed and delivered remotely. Within the sector, there are two groups that are likely to press to maintain and accelerate digital transformation.
On the other hand, spending through COVID-19 stimulus packages and the damage to economies will likely result in spending controls being applied across government departments and agencies, towards the end of the year and beyond. The aim will likely be to transfer funding from less essential programs to enable continued expenditure at the ‘front line’. The need to digitise and the need to spend less could be seen as conflicting priorities, particularly since some shortcuts have been taken in the rush to digitise, leaving cyber vulnerabilities that urgently need to be addressed.
The challenge for digitisation is that digitising the way we do things today releases only limited benefits. In contrast, undertaking fundamental digital transformation to remove unnecessary processes and move to a ‘to be’ model, can deliver greater effectiveness in terms of improved citizen and workforce experience as well as long-term cost savings. Leaders need to demonstrate the confidence to maintain the momentum of transformational change for citizens and their workforce, as well as for their balance sheet, rather than retreating to incremental steps.
There are several fundamental foundation stones to digital acceleration that deserve greater attention from governments. These are: the cloud, data analytics, defensive cyber security and mobility.
In many government departments there has been a reluctance to adopt the cloud, with many citing security concerns. These have mostly been laid to rest and there is now an increasing openness to it as the most fundamental of the foundation stones.
There is also increasing recognition that data is a critical and under-utilised asset in government. Data analytics offer the opportunity to deliver insights regarding citizen customers, the organisation or potentially adversaries and enable evidence-based decision making.
Given the legacy IT estates across governments, the importance of cyber security cannot be over-emphasised as departments undertake digital transformation. This is a key board risk and that needs to be managed proactively.
The foundation stone that has perhaps been most under-served across governments is that of mobility. Mobility is not just about mobile phones but relates to the ability to deliver access to capability and applications to and from a range of devices, for instance delivering services to citizens wherever they may be and whenever they wish to access them. It also refers to linking all the sensors in equipment, thereby enabling such things as predictive maintenance over rolling stock.
The sudden transition to remote working has led to increased bandwidth demands and this is expected to provide impetus to the delivery of 5G infrastructure. 5G is not just the next step in the evolution of mobility, it is a revolutionary leap forward because of its faster connections, ultra-low latency, and low energy consumption. Governments have a significant role in encouraging, or otherwise, the deployment of 5G, in terms of both policy and regulation. Those who move early are likely to reap major economic benefit.
For the wider economy, digitisation in the post-pandemic new reality will likely require government to take a policy and regulatory lead. It will need to support and enable economies struggling to deal with physically distant commerce, accelerated online commerce, as well as things like the move to a cashless society.
In summary, many areas of government have been rapidly forced into the digital future and to seize the potential rewards. Governments must avoid returning to old governance, processes and the way things were. The public sector should recognise that digital transformation can deliver not only long-term savings and huge effectiveness gains, but also deliver better citizen and workforce experiences.