‘We put a lot of effort into not becoming a centralised obstacle’: how government digital agencies can drive transformation

By on 15/02/2024 | Updated on 21/02/2024

Most countries have a digital transformation strategy for government, but what is the role of central digital units in helping turn those ambitions into reality?

In the latest episode of the Government Transformed podcast – brought to you by Global Government Forum with support from knowledge partner Visa – two digital leaders answer that question, touching on the vital role of central digital units in government in overcoming barriers to digital transformation.

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Guests Shira Lev-Ami, chief executive of Israel’s National Digital Agency and Àstrid Desset, former director general of the Open Government of Catalonia’s Open Administration Consortium, work or have worked in central government digital units.

Tasked with the development of digital strategies, delivering shared services across departments, facilitating data sharing, piloting the use of new technologies and other responsibilities, such units can be a driving force behind digital transformation efforts.

But Lev-Ami is clear that ministries must have the freedom to lead their own projects. “We put a lot of effort into not becoming a centralised obstacle, and only a centralised enabler,” she says.

Both guests also discuss the use of digital IDs, and highlight some of the biggest barriers to digital transformation in the public sector. These include a tendency to struggle with implementation – even when backed by robust strategy as discussed in the first two episodes of this podcast – alongside data sharing hurdles, the bureaucracy tied up in government procurement, and difficultly attracting and retaining top tech talent.

Desset, who currently works in the digital service of the Public Health Agency of the Province of Girona, and will move to Girona’s e-government and digital transformation office next month, believes recruitment and renumeration systems must be “changed radically and adapted to new times” if the latter is to be addressed.

Getting leaders to understand the opportunities of digital transformation and provide a clear vision for their teams is also vital, but both interviewees said this can also prove a stumbling block. Lev-Ami describes Israel’s Digital Leaders initiative, a year-long programme in which the leaders of various ministries work together and visit governments overseas to create a cadre of decision-makers who understand the potential of digital transformation and know how to begin making it happen, as one way round this problem.

Success stories

Describing projects they’ve worked on or have been inspired by that provide lessons for peers overseas, Lev-Ami summarises the Health Information Exchange, a national interoperability network led by the Israeli Ministry of Health that connects all of the hospitals and Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs) in the country through a single platform. She emphasises that the key to success in this case was the careful building of partnerships between organisations that had at times been “somewhat hostile to each other”.

Desset highlights the work of a municipality in Spain that has established an office responsible for the coordination of data from every department in the region and the thinking behind how to turn it into intelligent services, which data can be reused for other purposes, and which should be open to the public.

The podcasts ends with a note about public trust. “Digital services are part of the solution, not the problem,” says Lev-Ami. “If we provide excellent services we’re building trust… there’s an opportunity here to create trust where it’s lacking.”

This episode of Government Transformed was recorded in September 2023.

We take a deeper dive into building citizen trust in transformed services in the next episode – featuring Ben Roseth, senior specialist in modernisation of the state at the Inter-American Development Bank, and Eilidh McLaughlin, head of the Scottish Government’s Digital Citizen Unit – out next week.

Subscribe to Government Transformed on Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle Podcasts or Acast and go to GGF’s podcast page for updates.  

Previous episodes:
Episode 1: The difference between digitalisation and true transformation in government
Episode 2: Making digital transformation happen in government: from the ‘why’ to the ‘how’

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