Global report reveals senior officials lack understanding to drive digital transformation of government

By on 05/01/2022 | Updated on 04/02/2022

New research from Global Government Forum has revealed many of the barriers to digital transformation shared across governments – and provided tips and insights on how to overcome them.

The Digital Leaders Study, published today by GGF, is based on interviews with seven national digital leaders working at the centre of government to drive transformation.

The interviews assess the barriers and challenges to digital best practice, and set out seven findings on how digital reform can be achieved.

Among the findings in the report is a warning that departmental leaders and ministers often lack the understanding and commitment to drive digital transformation.

According to the interviews undertaken for the research, very few senior public officials “are genuine champions of digital transformation”. They also highlight that civil service recruitment and performance management often weeds out people with the skills and behaviours required to lead such projects.

The report highlighted that in most countries, the careers of public servants progress based on political and policy skills – rather than technical expertise.

As a result, commented one interviewee, senior digital figures in government end up working with departmental leaders who have “spent their entire careers being reflexively liability-conscious and risk-averse – because that’s how they got to be [departmental leaders] – and asking them to do the unthinkable and embrace change. It is the wrong cohort to try to get to lead such an operation”.

Such leaders, the report added, “know that their organisations should be more user-centred and more agile, but they’re not quite sure what that means and they don’t understand how to get there – given the way they’ve been taught to do business, and all the other pressures in their world.”

And while many national political leaders have a good understanding of the digital agenda, they can often be uninformed on how to realise that potential.

The research, which was undertaken by GGF with Kevin Cunnington, the director general of the UK’s Government Digital Service from 2016-19, also concluded that responsibility for driving digital transformation cannot be successfully delegated away from departmental leaders.

“The ministries’ digitalisation is an executive accountability, and that message has been sent loud and clear” to departmental leaders, commented an interviewee from one of the best-performing nations. “At that level, we are emphasising that it is your accountability to drive this; the chief information officer is there to enable and support you.”

Digital ID and data key to realising reforms

The report also found there are two essential elements to ensuring digital transformation – the need for strong digital ID systems, and high-quality, cross-government data management.

Over the last 20 years, many nations have made good progress on digitalisation, with a focus on ‘life events’ such as births and bereavements, with the aim that government provides a unified, semi-automated service that distributes data wherever it is required.

Such reform requires two capabilities: departments must be able to share and match data on individuals, addressing any discrepancies between their datasets; and citizens need a single, secure, online access point.

Building these systems also creates the basis for further reform, according to the report. “Given an agreed way to match up the data they hold around citizens or organisations, for example, departments can develop a much fuller picture of service users’ situations, needs and behaviour – ‘personalising’ and automating services, improving coordination, and strengthening preventive work.”

Such an approach requires countries to have a single citizen digital identity system, built around either a ‘unique identifier’ – such as the reference numbers lying at the core of many national ID systems – or a ‘golden record’: a ‘single source of truth’ held by a designated civil service body.

“Until they develop these capabilities, governments are condemned to manage an ever-growing number of mismatching data sets, often while citizens accumulate separate sets of log-in details for every individual service – creating a future of fast-rising confusion, cost and complexity,” according to the report.

The requirement for this system means these is a “substantive gap” between those nations well advanced in identifying and putting in place the foundations of effective digital transformation, and those who are further behind on this journey.

Digital chiefs ‘must learn from each other’

In his introduction to the report, Cunnington highlighted that public and civil service digital leaders have a similar set of ambitions. These include aiming to strengthen the evidence that informs policymaking, improving the tools provided to civil servants, and the efficiency, accessibility and targeting of public services. There are “obvious opportunities for central digital chiefs to learn from one another about how best to pursue those common goals”, he said, and “many of the changes required to drive digital transformation lie in the hands of organisational leaders or the heads of other professions”.

He added: “Knowing which countries are doing well and which badly does not help us to explain why that is – and for digital leaders, the really useful information is not who’s making progress, but how those in similar circumstances are doing so.

“To answer that question, we need to investigate the nature of the obstacles and constraints that hamper digital chiefs – exploring both their frustrations, and the ingenious ways that many have found to overcome these barriers.”

Interviews for the report were conducted on Chatham House Rules, so the quotes in this report are not attributed to individuals.

The full list of interviewees is:

Shahar Bracha, acting chief executive officer, Government ICT Authority, Israel

Geoff Huggins, director of digital, Scottish Government

Fariz Jafarov, director of the E-GOV Development Center, Azerbaijan

Paul James, government chief digital officer, New Zealand

Siim Sikkut, government chief information officer and deputy secretary general of IT and Telecoms, Estonia

Aaron Snow, former chief executive officer, Canadian Digital Service, Canada (now a faculty fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation, Georgetown University, USA)

Tan Eng Feng, assistant chief executive – services, GovTech Singapore

About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

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