Scaling digital in the public sector: Building blocks for the future

The upcoming government transition presents public-sector leaders with the opportunity to establish processes for successfully scaling digital technologies.

Over the past few years, many government organizations have started modernizing technologies and improving digital journeys by experimenting with operating models, such as agile, and technologies, such as cloud infrastructure and robotic process automation (RPA). Most organizations have experimented with these technologies through pilots and “pathfinders”—successful initial experiments that illuminate the way for others to follow—to validate that the technology works and that it is able to deliver value in areas such as cost reductions, innovation, and improvements in citizen and employee experience, service levels and performance, and cycle time. While they have been successful in the “experimentation” phase, few government organizations have been successful in scaling modern technologies and implementing data, analytics, and digital practices in their day-to-day operations.

The government transition this fall is a good opportunity for public-sector leaders to think ahead, leveraging the next four years to accelerate and scale digital ambitions to deliver on agencies’ objectives. Scaling ensures that the entire organization reaps the benefits of digital, drives efficiencies and effectiveness in programs, and that key stakeholders and constituents experience improved satisfaction levels.

Ten building blocks for successfully scaling digital

To scale technologies effectively, public-sector leaders can learn from their experiences in the experimentation phase and ensure the following ten building blocks are put in place:

  1. Clearly articulate ambition. Establishing an overarching aspiration, focusing on a limited set of priorities, and creating a clear roadmap are critical to scaling digital. The transition period offers the potential opportunity to reflect on and refine previous goals and to prioritize only those that will define the next four years and can be accelerated with technology. It also is particularly important for public-sector leaders to sunset any projects that are outside the purview of their priorities so they can free up resources and sharpen the organization’s focus.
  2. Clarify impact on agency’s mission. A powerful lesson learned from private-sector scaling of digital is that it is not only about rapidly setting up technology but also about how technology enables the mission. Constituents care less about how quickly an agency can stand up a server and care more about how quickly they can receive their stimulus checks, or their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, or how convenient and easy it is to obtain their small and medium-size business licenses to operate in the state. Articulating the impact of technology on an agency’s mission is key to driving buy-in and change across an organization. In this context, it is also equally important to strike a balance between near- and long-term impact right from the start, so as to ensure momentum is built through early wins.
  3. Understand the organization and its stakeholders’ motivations. Understanding an organization’s context is vital, particularly in government institutions where several staff members are career civil servants and there is a vast, external stakeholder landscape (for example, Congress, state and local governments, the press, and voters). Both incoming leaders—with prior experience or deep expertise in a particular issue—and new leaders to an agency will benefit from assessing their organizational landscape with fresh eyes (for example, through listening tours, focus groups, or voice-of-the-stakeholder interviews). Repeatedly, government leaders have stumbled because they did not take the time to reflect on and understand their institutions’ issues and their stakeholders. Private- and public-sector executives who have had successful transitions often highlight that the most important transition activity was understanding their organizations’ starting points through the lens of their employees and constituents, aligning their organizations around a strategic direction, and driving change from Day One.
  4. Innovate on acquisition. Each year, the federal government spends hundreds of billions of dollars—more than $325 billion in fiscal year 2018, 1 as an example—for common goods and services, such as mobile devices, software, and professional services; however, the speed and agility of contracting such goods and services can be one of the biggest barriers or enablers to scaling digital. Some agencies have experimented with innovative contracting vehicles—for example, other transaction authority (OTA) contracts—to access new technology and start-ups, but implementing these vehicles more systematically could be beneficial to agencies’ abilities to rapidly scale digital.
  5. Win the war for talent. In the ongoing war for talent, the ability to attract, cultivate, and retain top technology talent will be important to scaling. This will more likely than not require adapting operating models to attract talent—for example, proactively reaching out to talent that would traditionally go to technology and product companies and sharing with them value propositions to get them excited to apply to government roles—and modifications to recruiting processes and policies to significantly improve the speed of hiring (for example, reducing the time from job posting to onboarding from current levels of more than 100 days to less than a couple of weeks). With digital natives such as Gen Zers and millennials joining the workforce in larger numbers, there is an opportunity to capitalize on the excitement and interest of individuals who are highly motivated by mission and purpose. And, of course, at the same time, continuing to invest in training and developing existing personnel will be equally critical.
  6. Simplify and redesign legacy processes. Often data and digital transformations don’t scale because organizations attempt to automate their technology as is and get disappointed when the transformational value does not accrue. Without corresponding changes in business processes, some of which are archaic and not in tune with the times, technology automation won’t deliver its full potential impact. Changes in business processes—such as reengineering, redesign, and leveraging human-centric and ethnography-based design—should be a prerequisite to any new technology investment.
  7. Improve data sharing. When working with public-sector organizations, we often notice that, even today, a majority of data used in government agencies are siloed. Thus reports and analytics often show narrow results and lack organization-wide insights. With the availability and maturity of data and technology, there is an opportunity to share data throughout business processes, leverage technology more effectively, and deploy advanced analytics to drive insights at scale, improving effectiveness of data-driven decision making.
  8. Embrace agility. While most leaders recognize the need to modernize legacy systems and sunset outdated technologies, it is a daunting task. Technology upgrades are often multiyear projects that primarily show their value at the end. One step leaders can take is to collaborate with technology and project architects to reflect on how to drive large programs by delivering incremental value in weeks and months. The public sector can also integrate learnings from industry-leading companies that have been successful in ingraining agile principles, including collaboration, learning and improvement, delivering value, failing fast, and sprinting. These techniques can help unlock potential for teams willing to ingrain agile methodologies into their day-to-day operations.
  9. Embed security as a strategic imperative. With increased remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic, cybersecurity and risk management have become even more important for government agencies to prevent attacks and enable secured communication. At the same time, as agencies consider deploying cloud and other third-party innovations in their digital stack, there is a need to ensure that cybersecurity practices are leveraging the best of the industry, while not hindering developer productivity or scaling of digital across the organization. Agencies could benefit from embedding cybersecurity into new processes and technologies as a strategic imperative rather than as an afterthought.
  10. Drive robust governance. Finally, the lynchpin of these building blocks is governance, an ongoing process and structure that provides oversight, decision making, and pathways for escalation and continuous improvement. Effective governance helps ensure that technology, data, and cyber practices are in-line with organizational objectives and can adapt to changing needs. Additionally, highlighting risks early in the process could ensure that the value expected from technology investments is realized, by allowing for effective mitigation and monitoring.

While preparing for the next four years, public-sector leaders have the opportunity to consider deploying these ten building blocks to harness the full power of technology, data, and digital to improve their constituents’ experiences and build on their agencies’ achievements.

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