Government agencies exist to deliver necessary services to citizens, especially at the local level. In the U.K., for instance, a full 80 percent of all public services are provided by local councils, and demand for these resources continues to rise. How this task is accomplished has changed over time, from strictly in-person and phone-based interactions to the digital environment that’s currently emerging across the government spectrum.
This shift is coming at a time when state and federal governments are cutting funding for local initiatives and programs, making more efficient use of resources imperative. As the populace’s needs and preferences evolve when it comes to government services, public agencies will need to not only become more streamlined and cost-effective, but more citizen-centric as well. This means embracing the necessary steps to digitally transform local government into a more efficient and better functioning machine.
Research and Data Sharing for Local Governments
In 1999, a study conducted by the University at Albany’s Center for Technology in Government examined what a 21st century government would need to look like in order to take advantage of all the opportunities and avenues digital technology was already providing people around the world. The original report suggested that cross-sectoral research programs could have multiplicative benefits to a government agency hoping to make real change and also recognized that findings could come from every level of the government, other public entities or any person therein.
Nearly two decades later, comparing their recommendations to where we’ve landed and where we’re going with digital government can reveal quite a lot about how the challenge of scaling digital transformation for governments of today and beyond can be approached. What was posited in the turn-of-the-millennium study about the linkage between research and practice in the context of government rings even truer in today’s more digitally connected age where governments are struggling to do just that.
In 2017, data sharing has never been more important. Today, data sharing among government agencies and even to the public at large has become one of the best, most solid impacts of the age of digital government. While we’re certainly over the hump when it comes to getting data into the right hands at the right times to encourage new insights, the question is whether those insights can turn into modern processes and policy.
Overcoming Legacy-Based Obstructions
Local government is often fragmented, with a myriad of local officials and other civil servants, service providers and priorities. This can make it a challenge to research solutions and share data — not to mention the difficulty of coordinating services, especially in remote areas.
Adding to the issue is a growing demand voiced by citizens who desire 24/7 access to information and services through any channel, including phone, internet and mobile devices. The problem here is that the fragmented nature of local government makes for inconsistencies across platforms, including contradictory information, diminished mobile or web-based experiences, and an inability to perform the same tasks across every channel.
To combat these roadblocks, local government agencies need to focus on removing or revamping the legacy systems that are holding them back.
Front Office vs. Back Office
Two of the most commonly cited woes of citizen-government interactions are inefficient bureaucratic processes and the volume of paperwork that often comes with them. Even with present online capabilities, citizens still have to fill out lengthy applications, often providing the same information multiple times if they have to interact with more than one agency.
This is often blamed on the people and processes that citizens are interacting with, known as the front office. Much of the blame, however, is more rightfully placed on the inside, where the back office is responsible for storing, processing and distributing the data collected by the front office.
For many local governments, the current data system consists of disparate, isolated silos. This leaves them unable to connect or integrate administrative, financial and records management functions, especially across agencies, leading to slow operations, redundant paperwork, wasted tax dollars and unsatisfied citizens.
Managing applications for service and informational queries are basic duties for any government, yet many still find themselves fumbling such requests. There’s often a marked lack of collaboration between departments and agencies in these cases, which, in turn, causes sluggish responses and inconsistent answers. For example, citizens become confused when a webpage tells them one thing regarding their property tax balance while a phone representative provides another amount and a mailed document offers a third figure. Even worse, the lack of sharing can mean that information becomes outdated, a problem many governments currently try to rectify by making citizens provide the same information over and over again — continuing the cycle started by front-office/back-office inefficiencies.
Developing a Scaling Strategy
Local governments can’t afford to ignore the new digitally transformative processes that are taking place across both the private and public sectors. Although there are already many digital components in place, there needs to be a more comprehensive digital solution that includes innovative technology and citizen-serving philosophies. A successful digital transformation in local government is comprised of three elements:
- Tailored interactions that have been personalized by utilizing data from previous communications, services and applications.
- An omnichannel environment that provides the same access to the information and functions across all means of communication and interaction, digital or otherwise.
- Straightforward digital tools and processes that give people exactly what they want without filling out numerous forms or jumping through bureaucratic hoops.
Much of the easier-to-achieve initiatives in this area could come down to something as simple as redefining the user experience between citizen and government. If data can be collected about simple interactions between government and constituency, a scalable approach to fixing pain points and encouraging increased interactivity can be within reach. The United Kingdom’s focus seems to be exactly here, as its “2020 Digital Transformation Strategy” hopes to deliver a set of end-to-end services that improve experience for all potential users. This approach creates an even stronger connection between government priorities and the people those priorities actually impact. It also opens the ability of governmental priorities to hit smaller, more meaningful segments of the population when needed.
The key to supporting this change and safeguarding the ability to scale up to a point where every level of government can take advantage is an agile approach to technology and platform sharing. Co-creation and collaboration on all fronts, especially where data is supporting decision-making, will be imperative to ensuring that the thoughts of the best-equipped decision-makers or researchers reach those who need that information quickly and in a way that’s actionable. In this light, analytics platforms to survey public data — health, traffic, financial — will be fundamental to keeping this flow of data steady in both directions, from the people to the government and back again.
Impacts of a Well-Scaled Digital Transformation
The public’s demand for digital government solutions is, for better or worse, happening synchronously with an increasing need to cut government costs. By leveraging digital strategies, government bodies may enable the necessary cost-cutting and service-strengthening objectives that local governments strive for, including:
- Increased efficiencies via next-generation solutions and streamlined processes.
- Improved performance through better use of data and analytical insights.
- Real-time insights into departmental operations and projects.
- More effective use of resources leading to reduced costs.
- Consistent record-keeping and reporting for both public information and legal compliance.
- Enhanced interactions with citizens that cultivate improved community outcomes.
Local governments that adopt digital transformation initiatives and scale appropriately will benefit from a centralized data system and unified knowledge across their organization. Departments and agencies won’t be separated by their data. Similarly, agile technology can allow local governments to interact with each other, sharing research and spreading valuable information. In short, public sector organizations can optimize both external and internal processes to create a flexible, fully integrated framework that serves rather than stymies citizens’ efforts.
This type of investment in organizational design for government can have far-reaching effects. The ways businesses, people or organizations interact with government can be revolutionized by a more efficient, digital-first, front-facing government. Singapore, for example, has pledged nearly $1.7 billion to achieve exactly that. The country understands that the interaction model between the stodgy government of the past and its evolving constituency wasn’t future-proof. It is now working to completely revamp the system and perhaps, in the process, stimulate its own economy.
The need for digital transformation shows no signs of slowing down, adding ever-more complexity to local government’s endeavors. Digital efforts need to be properly scaled to ensure comprehensive solutions that touch every aspect of the bureaucracy and fully meet rising constituent expectations. The initiatives already in motion around the world, can be looked to as standard bearers for the potentials of digital government. The issue of scale when it comes to digital is daunting, but this does not make digital initiatives any less critical. Local governments must develop a strategy to discover how to approach these digital initiatives, because proper implementation can facilitate real, valuable change in the lives of people around the world.