Disrupting governments: choosing a pace for public sector innovation

By on 03/04/2019
Peter Batt, director general for digital society, digitisation of the administration and information technology, Germany, and Radhika Chadwick, strategy partner at EY

Citizens increasingly expect the government’s digital services to match those of the private sector – but a rapid shift online risks leaving behind those service users who can’t or won’t make the shift. Natalie Leal reports on a debate at Innovation 2019 that highlighted the tensions in governments’ digital agendas

Countries around the world are working to digitise public services – but the pace of change varies. Some nations are transforming rapidly, whilst others take a more cautious approach. And at last month’s Innovation 2019 conference, these differences came into sharp focus when civil servants from five countries debated contemporary approaches to service design.

Germany is determined that the move to digital services won’t disadvantage those without internet access, said Peter Batt, the country’s director general for digital society, digitisation of the administration and information technology. “I can’t leave people behind, and we have digital gaps to deal with – digital gaps that are massive – [between] old and young, rural areas and cities, so it goes on and on,” he told the conference, which was organised by Global Government Forum with the UK Cabinet Office.


Jegorov believes that governments that innovate too slowly risk being left behind.

Batt was responding to a question from Dmitri Jegorov, deputy secretary-general for tax and customs policy within Estonia’s Ministry of Finance. Estonia is among the most advanced and forward-looking digital administrations in the world, with a radical approach to citizen data and plans to move to ‘invisible’ government – under which citizens will receive services automatically, rather than having to apply. And Jegorov argued that those governments which transform slowly risk being left behind: “Those countries that don’t drive innovation will lose out, don’t you think that?” he’d asked Batt.

Progress v inclusion

Jegerov felt Batt’s urge for slow, careful change was unrealistic in a rapidly changing world where, he said, one percent of people are now digital nomads and governments are in competition with one another.

Peter Batt believes a successful digital transformation must be slow and steady so as to not leave citizens behind.

But Batt emphasised the dangers inherent in modernising too quickly. Governments must “stand for reliability. They have to have people’s trust, and you can’t leave the population behind in all your ambition,” he argued. It’s important to focus on how to govern, rather than purely on “how to make something a bit faster,” he said. 

Governments are in danger of becoming “hysteric” about digital innovation, he added. Services need to remain accessible for all, and citizens “sitting in a rural area [who] cannot use digital means,” have to be considered.

Government should stand for “quality against speed and reliability, and trust against speed,” he concluded. “I’ll gladly join you if you say you have to be as ambitious as possible, but don’t lose the people you’re responsible for. Never.”

How ambitious?

Yet public expectations are rising; and during the session, other speakers pointed out that it is also dangerous to allow public sector digital services to fall too far behind the private sector’s offer.

Radhika Chadwick says innovation in the private sector has set the standard for people’s expectations.

During the presentation by Radhika Chadwick, strategy partner at event knowledge partner EY, she noted that governments are “competing for talent, you’re competing for investment, but you’re also competing for your citizens’ attention.”

Innovation in the private sector has set the standard for people’s expectations, Chadwick said. Customers placing orders on a website don’t care if it’s a bank, an energy company or a government: they “just expect fast, accurate results.”

Digital companies have succeeded in disrupting major parts of the economy, noted chair Matt Ross, asking how ambitious governments should be in adopting the business models made possible by digital technologies. Might future social care users be able to commission a carer as easily as people order an Uber taxi today?

“Governments have a moral obligation to provide the best possible service to their citizens, and [as to what stands for] the best possible, the bar has moved significantly,” said Chadwick. And Lucelle Veneros, first assistant secretary in Australia’s Department of Finance, said service design must “meet people’s expectations and needs, although they are going to continue to change as we take advantage of all these technologies.”

The cost of doing nothing

Concerns were raised about how the government should manage disruptive new technologies such as driverless cars. How should responsibilities and accountabilities be handled to govern how a driverless vehicle decides, for example, between hitting a group of schoolchildren or a group of nuns?

Lucelle Veneros urged governments to make more use of available data.

That’s a valid question, said Chadwick – but governments also need to consider the opportunity cost of not adopting new technologies. Driverless cars are much safer than those controlled by people, she noted, “so every day that a policy maker does not make that choice, you’ve got thousands of people on the road who are dying because of human error.”

So taking a cautious approach to digital services and technologies may shrink the risk to government, but it doesn’t necessarily minimise the costs to society. The calculation facing governments, said Chadwick, is: “What is the cost of going too slowly on some of these choices, and also what is the cost of going too quickly?”

Dax Harkins, director for government payment services at the UK agency National Savings & Investments, could see challenges in applying the ‘Uber’ model to social care. In health and social care, he said, there are “big, thorny, systemic issues to try to deal with” before digitising access. But the private sector is moving forwards fast, said Harkins, and government will have to innovate to keep up.“No organisation or government really has a choice about the pace,” he said. “It’s happening and it’s being forced on us; citizens are demanding it, are used to it.”

How to progress?

There was more consensus when the panel were asked which changes they’d like to see to encourage civil service innovation. Batt and Chadwick agreed more leadership was essential to drive innovation forward, with Chadwick also suggested equalising pay scales between the private and public sector.

Harkins and Tang Liheng, director of Singapore’s Transformation Office, both recommended breaking down silos – both between departments, and between the public and private sectors. This echoed points made earlier in the discussion by Tang Liheng, who said that “blurring the boundaries between the private and public sector” would help governments provide better citizen-centred public services. And Veneros urged governments to make more use of available data.

Dax Harkins, director for government payment services at the UK agency National Savings & Investments and Tang Liheng, director of Singapore’s Transformation Office, both recommended breaking down silos.

As governments move forward on those agendas, they’ll have to make decisions over pace and ambition – balancing the goals of improving service quality and efficiency against the need to avoid excluding those unable or unwilling to go digital. Advances in technology and changing citizen expectations may be disrupting governments, said Batt, but governments’ reactions have the potential to disrupt “the common basis for society.”

“There are no easy answers,” concluded Chadwick, but “we need a sophisticated conversation about the choices that we make – because the choices that we’re making right now really matter.”

You can watch the full Innovation in Service Design and Delivery session, along with the rest of the event, at Innovation 2019’s dedicated website.

For more on service transformation from Dax Harkins, see our Partner Content from NS&I – in which he explains how the agency is to offer UK public bodies ‘open banking’ services.

About Natalie Leal

Natalie Leal is an NCTJ qualified journalist based in the UK. She holds a BSc and Master's degree in Social Anthropology and writes about society, poverty, politics, welfare reform, innovation and sustainable business. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Positive News, The Brighton Argus, UCAS, Welfare Weekly, Bdaily News and more.

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