In an astute observation that applies to governments worldwide, a Canadian public service advisory committee pointed out that a digital population cannot be well served by an analog government.1
Over the preceding months, our series of articles has explored some key trends and specific applications of technology in human and social services. The scope and pace of transformation is remarkable, presenting valuable opportunities for integrating and digitizing service delivery.
But how do governments achieve transformation? And once they do so, how do they maintain it? How do agencies keep their service delivery up to date, effective and accessible? Above all, how can service providers keep the citizen’s perspective front and center?
Making big changes within a big organization – within a ministry or across agencies – can be a formidable task, but practical lessons can be drawn from the numerous agencies that have already transformed the way they do things.2
Start with a vision
Transformation starts with a vision and from the top. It’s vital to define mutually agreed goals that have explicit and ongoing support from senior levels. That means focusing on the desired results first, rather than getting sidetracked by new technological possibilities. Automation and technology are merely supports for workforce efficiency, not ends in themselves.
A business case must be made in order to articulate the benefits of interagency cooperation and the nature of any data to be shared. As well, a clearly understood governance model should be developed so that everyone involved knows who makes, reviews or approves decisions.
Denmark, for example, has published a Strategy for Digital Welfare (2013–2020) that lays out seven areas of focus – such as welfare technology in nursing and care, and new digital pathways in case processing – and specific objectives to be achieved within those areas.3
Be collaborative and creative
Genuinely transforming how the citizen experiences services requires far greater interagency cooperation than has traditionally been exercised, and developing a collaborative environment takes collaborative thinking. An interagency working group with senior-level support should be established to promote and manage the integration of departments and services.
Achieving integration also takes creativity, but models of shared service delivery already exist. It’s often more effective to study successful examples and then adapt them than it is to start from scratch.
Idaho has taken a close look at an innovative jobs training program developed in the City of Brooklyn, and tailored it to a far more widely dispersed population and an education system with far smaller schools.
The Idaho PTECH Network (Pathways To Early Career High School) pilot program uses technology to link the capabilities and interests of students, education departments and private employers.
At the same time, agencies should not be afraid to break the mold. If the rationale for taking or rejecting a particular approach or process is “because we’ve always/never done it that way”, it may be time to find new efficiencies.
Keep it secure
In some instances private providers are stepping into areas that many consider to be a core government responsibility, such as child protection.4 This can raise ethical issues about the ownership and use of sensitive information, but it also reflects what can occur in the absence of government action.
In an ever more closely connected world, it’s essential to determine the legislation, regulations and confidentiality requirements involved in data collection and sharing. Data security should be incorporated into all modernization initiatives, and staff should be trained to understand when information sharing is mandated, permissible or prohibited. This is not only legally and ethically necessary but can also help to overcome any reluctance to cooperate.
Take it one step at a time
It takes time to migrate long-established processes to an integrated, digitized human services delivery model that’s truly centered on the citizen. Rather than attempting to do everything at once, it makes sense to start in either a single service area or a single aspect of several services. The public sector is rightfully moving to a more nimble and agile approach to transformation, underpilnned by a clear roadmap for reaching the desired end state.5
Developing a proof of concept in one service area can produce lessons for other areas. California, for example, has started with a proof of concept in the field of foster care. Lessons learned there may well inform other child welfare services.
Another approach is to develop a technological overlay to integrate an aspect of services across sectors, working around the limitations of legacy infrastructure. Possibilities include using middleware to manage a common client index across various government agencies, as New York City has done.6
Achieving transformation is one thing; maintaining it is another. An effective digital transformation strategy has to take a long-term approach to ensure that change is manageable and that systems do not become unwieldy or obsolete.
Remember the citizen
When processes are re-engineered, it’s important to think behaviorally. In what context will clients have to interact with an app? Is a web interface sufficiently intuitive?
Ensuring that a delivery channel is adopted might also involve providing supports to citizens who are reluctant or unable to use digital tools, such as offering training in how to use a digital tablet to elderly people in their own homes.7 Such human-focused measures can dramatically improve the uptake and effectiveness of a new service.
A new service via a digital channel needs to be marketed as well, so that citizens trust it to handle their data securely and believe that using the service benefits them – rather than just saving the government money.
Keep it workable
Sometimes, simple is best. Data analytics can be dazzling, but some improvements merely require ways to put data into the right hands. Predictive technologies may not be possible, or even necessary, as a first step.
It’s also crucial to remember the people who deliver services. Do providers have the tools they need? Have they received appropriate training? Is the new system overwhelmingly complex or intimidating?
Service providers need practical supports. The United States has developed FedRAMP, an approved list of federally certified technology tools, and DigitalGov University, an online community that enables government officials to share their knowledge about using technology effectively.
Choose the right metrics
Digital transformation also involves ongoing performance evaluation. It’s a matter of choosing key performance indicators selectively and then tracking performance against them automatically and continuously.
Good metrics consider the citizens who receive services. Did they wait a long time? Did they have to give the same information multiple times? Can they get access to their own records?
Don’t stand still
Digital technologies emerge quickly. A successful transformation strategy includes a plan for constantly learning about promising technologies and for testing them quickly to determine whether and how they might be advantageous.
Much of the private sector, for example, is taking steps to reduce its IT footprint – the physical space that hardware takes up or the memory that software uses – for greater efficiency. Government must do the same. What services might be delivered via apps? Could biometrics help security? How might cloud computing eliminate duplication?
Lewes District Council in Britain is using cloud-based collaboration software to work across staff, partners and the public. The tool allows professionals from different organizations working on the same case to capture and share information in real time, in a highly secure, cloud-based environment.
More fundamentally, data is useful only as long as it is continuously updated. In particular, the predictive power of analytics is lost without current, reliable data.
A practical approach to digital transformation must consider several dimensions, and those dimensions are undergoing profound changes.
The type of data to be used is shifting from historical to predictive. Processes and record keeping are moving from paper based to digital, and often mobile, technologies. Metrics are focusing on outcomes rather than processes: determining how many clients were able to avoid using a housing shelter, for example, rather than how many used the shelter on a given night.
Ultimately, dimensions such as process design and metrics should be based on human lessons. When public employees are able to use technology to solve their tasks more quickly and easily, it frees resources for service delivery. When those employees function within a human services ecosystem rather than within silos, they can collaborate with and learn from other agencies.
And at the heart of transformation, of course, is the experience of the citizen. Returning to the example of the Danish digital strategy provides the overarching goal of transformation in a nutshell: to provide human services in collaboration with citizens rather than to citizens.
1Government of Canada, Seventh Report of the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee on the Public Service, March 2013.
2Much of the following discussion on achieving and maintaining transformation is based on the helpful insights found in Forbes Insight, Digitizing Human Services: Field notes and forecasts from the front lines of government’s technological transformation (2015), 41–45.
3Danish Government, Digital Welfare: Empowerment, Flexibility and Efficiency, September 2013.
4HubCare, for example, is a privately run online portal used by more than 1,500 Australian childcare centers to manage enrolments and attendance. HubCare is exploring data analytics techniques to improve early intervention for children at risk. See Hannah Francis, “World-first technology to help protect children from abuse”, The Age, September 17, 2014.
5Hencoski, P 2016, Planning for an Incremental Approach to Modernization (PDF 3.1), APHSA Policy & Practice.
6Forbes Insight, Digitizing Human Services, 37.
7UK, Local Government Association, Transforming Local Public Services Using Technology and Digital Tools and Approaches June 2014 (PDF 465 KB)