Rebuilding government for the digital age

By on 08/03/2020 | Updated on 04/02/2022
Leo Yip

Governments are working hard to drive change in their digital journeys, but are they missing the bigger picture? At the Global Government Leaders’ Forum, panellists discussed whether the fundamental structures and systems of government are a barrier to progress. Mia Hunt reports

“The traditional hierarchal models of operating within government can’t help us to respond to the demands of our citizens and don’t equip us to evolve quickly enough when new technological challenges arise. We need to look at the fundamental structures that we operate within, and consider whether or not they are fit for purpose in the digital age.”

Katherine Jones, deputy secretary of Australia’s finance department, was speaking at the inaugural Global Government Leaders’ Forum, held at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore on 30 January. The half-day event – hosted by the Government of Singapore and organised by Global Government Forum – brought together 80 civil service leaders from 13 countries to hear panel discussions on the forms of civil service leadership required to address environmental challenges and implement digital technologies.

Katherine Jones: “The traditional hierarchal models of operating within government… don’t equip us to evolve quickly enough when new technological challenges arise.”

Leo Yip, head, civil service, Singapore, summed up the focus of the event in his opening address: “Even though we all work for different civil services, serving different countries and uplifting the lives of different peoples, we share many things in common,” he said, adding that the Forum aims “to bring together senior government officials to look at our common challenges and opportunities, and to learn from each other.”

Indeed, it was clear from the first session on digital transformation that governments are grappling with many of the same issues – including the challenges around developing a central digital strategy; enabling the sharing of data; building capability; encouraging bottom-up innovation; and creating a flexible, agile and risk-tolerant working environment.

Death of an agile project?

The panellists agreed that leaders need to be optimistic, resilient and “constructively dissatisfied” with public services if they are to drive successful digital programmes

Jones wasn’t the only panellist to identify the need to rethink traditional government structures and systems as key to enabling change. Kevin Cunnington, director general of International Government Service and UK Digital Envoy, pointed out that traditional business planning processes can make it hard to apply the ‘agile’ project management methodologies that best support digital schemes. “If one goes to Treasury to get sign off for a project, they’re likely to ask: ‘What’s this project going to look like? How much is it going to cost? And when is it going to be finished?’ That’s almost the death of an agile project before you even set off,” he said. “You simply can’t predict the exact outcomes – it changes with the reality of what you build.” 

But things are changing, said Cunnington: his team have been working with the Treasury on a more flexible process that enables leaders to adjust their business plans throughout a project. “It’s become the de facto standard of the way we work. Every six months we say: ‘We were wrong about that, we’ve learnt this, and we have refined that’.” 

Kevin Cunnington’s team have been working with the Treasury on a more flexible process that enables leaders to adjust their business plans throughout a project

Changing long-established processes to enable flexibility is one thing. Promoting a more risk-tolerant culture is another.

“As public servants, we’re being encouraged to innovate, to go digital and to think differently about how we deliver services, but the operating environment we work in is sometimes very intolerant of mistakes and of risk,” said Jones. “As leaders, we have to ensure that we’re creating environments where we experiment and iterate and where we accept that sometimes things will fail. We have to create cultures where people can try something new, and if it doesn’t work first time – or it doesn’t work at all – it’s not a career-ending activity.”  

Listening to frontline staff

Allowing officials to test their ideas without fear of failure can result in new and improved digital public services –­ particularly if the right people are involved in testing them, said Tan Kok Yam, deputy secretary of Singapore’s Smart Nation and Digital Government Office.

“For example, if you’re building an application to make it easier for people to pay their parking charges, ideally you want to ask the parking attendant to be involved in the process,” he said. “Some of his inputs may well be more pertinent than those of someone in management.”

Mikhail Pryadilnikov says it’s important to consult the private sector on government digital plans

As Mikhail Pryadilnikov, head of Russia’s Center of Competence for Digital Government Transformation, told the audience, it’s important “to be able to think beyond your own silo, and to think broadly”. This extends not just to cross-departmental working and involving people at all levels of the public service, but to working with the private sector too.

When building digital services in Russia, plans are reviewed both by a panel of cross-agency peers and also by representatives from business, Pryadilnikov explained. “Businesses are much more advanced in terms of providing quality services to customers; and often, they’re critical and say government isn’t thinking as far ahead as it should. This cross-fertilisation is very important – it provides ministers with a perspective they don’t usually see.”  

Catalyst for change

Tan Kok Yam: “If you want to get buy-in across the public sector, each public servant has to see how digital affects their own work.”

During the session, panellists offered delegates much food for thought on how to advance their digital agendas. According to Tan Kok Yam, one key – and often overlooked – catalyst for change is to consider how digital services serve the civil service itself.

“You can’t convince the public servant that digital transformation is the way to go if software is clunky and if he has to do paper procurement approvals,” he told the audience. “If you want to get buy-in across the public sector, each public servant has to see how digital affects their own work and they have to be convinced that things are better now than they were six months ago.”

At the end of the session, talk turned to the characteristics leaders need to drive successful digital programmes. Optimism is one useful trait, panellists agreed; being “constructively dissatisfied” with public services is important; and leaders also need to be resilient. Then – like the panel at the first ever Global Government Leaders’ Forum – civil servants can believe that things can change for the better; they can see how they need to do so; and they can find a way through the many hurdles in their path.

This is the first of two reports on the Global Government Leaders’ Forum 2020. The second, covering a session on environmental sustainability, will be published soon.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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