Digital transformation: not as easy as it looks


The digital transformation of government and the public sector isn’t as easy as it looks.

You would think that after 20 years or so, mainly on the outside looking in, and occasionally from the inside looking out, and a book or two to boot, I’d have worked that out by now.

And of course I have.  It’s hard work, grinding through ‘hard boards” with passion and perseverance, to paraphrase Max Weber’s reflections “on politics.”

Almost everything is harder in practice than it is in theory. Writing about stuff and offering occasionally helpful advice and, even more occasionally, clever insights from the sidelines is so much easier than doing the work.

But in the last little while, my general enthusiasm, irretrievably amateur though it so often feels, has been tested by some insights about the day to day reality confronting the digital transformation “project” in government and the public sector, especially here in Australia.

Like the recent session in which we were spruiking the rising influence of artificial intelligence and the likely impact on public services and citizen engagement of augment reality only to be told that, in one regional government office, the vast majority of the team didn’t have ‘smart’ phones or wifi enabled laptops.

When they left the office, they were no longer connected. Unless they were happy to switch to their personal phones (and presumably their personal phone plans and charges).  Or the participant in a recent workshop who reported that she was joining from her home on her own computer and home network because otherwise she wouldn’t be able to access the Zoom platform which her department has banned.

Or the feedback in a similar session with mid-level and senior public sector leaders who told us that, as the emergency conditions of COVID’s full intensity starts to recede, the speed, openness and instinct to share and join forces for common (and urgent) problem solving were all being wound back as Ministers, their minders and some senior public service leaders reached for old reflexes of “turf”, silo and personal “brand” promotion and protection.

Already, we were told, and despite some of the buoyant rhetoric of collaboration and “one team”, a more cagey, selfish and constricted sense of personal and political safety presages a dispiriting return to the ‘old ways’ – hold on to data, don’t share (unless you absolutely have to) and, whatever else happens, protect your Minister and promote your own policy, political, departmental and personal interests above all.

None of these reflections emerge from any kind of forensic and rigorous study, so let’s take them for what they are – unsettling “letters from the trenches”, heartfelt pleas from the frontline, that suggest all is not as well as we’d like to think in the push for more creative and comprehensive “digital” as the core of a whole new way of governing and government.

What follows are some personal observations from these recent exchanges which include a series of ‘masterclass’ sessions I’ve run, with colleague and co-author Simon Cooper, for the ANZ School of Government as well as from my own advisory and research work across governments at state and federal level.

They exposed me to the digital transformation “lived experience” of Secretaries and Directors-General (yes, in Queensland too), of Deputy Secretaries and of executive directors, directors and managers.  A decent (but, to be fair, small in number) slice of current and rising public sector leadership.  It’s a legitimate and valuable evidence base, to be sure, no matter it doesn’t claim to be definitive or conclusive. Just a bit worrying.

It is useful to keep in mind (and I say this largely as a “memo to self”) that just as COVID especially has delivered the world’s post powerful real-time, real world lesson in rapid, intense and very practical digital transformation, the progress we’re actually making might be more ephemeral than we hoped.

Even more importantly, the collective energy, creativity, leadership and commitment needed to sustain the successive waves of investment and deep change (cultural, technical, institutional, organisational and political) may be much thinner and more fragile than we thought.  And that’s a real problem, if it’s true.

It’s great we can all Zoom and Teams and work together (sort of) on a shared GoogleDoc – and all of the digital immersion of the last 12 months is truly impressive, for sure.  But what I’m beginning to wonder, and worry about, is whether actually Australia’s political and institutional will to make the next round of digital “big bets” for the coming next stage of collaborative, ethical, secure and deeply human digital transformation might actually be waning just when it needs to be waxing.

In no particular order of importance or significance, these are some of the things I’ve encountered in my travels with and to the places where the digital transformation work is actually being done.

1 Missing the basics

Digital transformation isn’t going to happen when swathes of public servants can’t access basic infrastructure and services that give them the tools to connect, collaborate, use data and information, communicate, serve and respond with the digital era’s requisite speed, intensity and connectedness.

Blathering on about AI and augmented reality when public servants don’t have phones, adequate computers, secure and robust networks and the proper skills and knowledge to do their work clearly isn’t helpful.

2 Running interference

If, after every election and “machinery of government” change (or the dreaded MOG, as in “we’ve been MOG-ed”), as a public servant you are at the mercy of politicians and their advisors whose instincts for protection, reputation and old fashioned notions of power and control, not to mention lack of digital skills and knowledge, erode your ability to use the basic digital tools of your trade, we’re clearly never going to transform anything.

3 Spending the leadership dividend

New, digital leadership for modern government and the public service is a lot like old, ‘analogue’ leadership in government and the public service, except where it’s completely different.

It implies the ability to lead for digital (hold the space for others to work fast, collaboratively and with rapid experimentation and learning) and to use digital to lead (confidence with digital tools for data, analysis, collaboration and shared working, communication and reporting).

The last 12 months of the forced modernization in public sector work, workplaces and workstyles has disturbed patterns of control, status, authority and accountability, mostly for the better.  What proportion of public sector leaders want to hold on to that “dividend” and bake it into a new normal?

And what proportion are itching to get the game back to where they feel comfortable and are reassuringly in charge? If that’s what’s happening, we’re in trouble and we should stop with the PowerPoints and start with a serious interrogation of leadership culture and capability for the digital journey ahead.

4 Don’t stint now

The next phase of the pandemic, loosely described as “recovery and renewal”, is dominated by imperatives to mend budgets and find the new balance for whatever will pass in the new context as fiscal rectitude.  Costs are being cut wherever possible, especially in the “backend” systems which turn out to be vital for the overall success of the recovery but are conveniently invisible and politically tractable.

No government ever got thrown out of office in the face of protests and social media shitstorms about reduced IT budgets and the failure to equip all public servants with a proper mobile device.  So the cuts are happening and (some) transformational projects are being sidelined.

The recovery is ushering in a world whose trajectory for reform and new skills, patterns of work, investment and interdependence was well set before COVID put a rocket under the whole shebang.  Now is the time to invest and breakthrough to “the next level” as the PowerPoints have it. Definitely not a time to stint and crimp.

5 Missed messages and mandates: is this really important?

That leads to very mixed messages to the front line.  How many public servants beyond those I’ve met and talked with in the last few months, are trying to work out whether there is really a political and institutional mandate, from the highest levels (PM, Premiers, Ministers, Secretaries and Directors-General) for this digital transformation they keep hearing about and which many of them want very much to pursue?

And, while it’s important, publishing a digital strategy either for government or for the economy doesn’t count.  This is much more basic and very raw: where is the clear and unequivocal investment of political and bureaucratic capital and reputational risk that sends strong signals to public service leaders and staff right through to the front line that this digital transformation thing is important, necessary and defensible. Victor Dominello is impressive, but even he’s not enough on his own.

6 Housekeeping matters

Here’s another thing I’ve heard.  If we have to deal with the inevitable pause in some spending and investment in digital and transformation “tech” (not the same thing, of course), then at least let’s use the hiatus to do some housekeeping.

Are there procurement rules and processes, HR methods and practices, learning and skills gaps, budget and investment planning systems and routines that are regularly getting in the way of more streamlined and ‘modern’ digital government?

And can we clear this undergrowth of poor planning, process and procurement, to make what we’re doing now easier and smother and get things ready for the next big digital push?  Are public service leaders turning the focus on cost constraints and budget repair into an opportunity for necessary back office and process reform that is relatively cheap, but mostly unglorious.

7 Backsliding

It’s a bit like the earlier point about spending the leadership dividend from COVID, but the speed, intensity and relative success with which the public service everywhere has  “transitioned to digital” risks being matched by a desire by some leaders to just as quickly “return to normal”.

Issues of status, authority, control and accountability were disturbed and reshaped during the pandemic out of sheer necessity. In the process, some big improvements in culture and practice could be eroded or lost in the retreat to familiarity that some leaders are already showing

8 Share and collaborate, for goodness sake

A final point speaks to mounting frustration that the instinct to share and collaborate across pretty much every aspect of the pandemic’s response is leaking.  Everyone agrees we need to invest in better public digital infrastructure based on serious shared and more robust platforms and integrated services.

Surely to goodness we aren’t going to see in the COVID experience just a bigger, uglier and more brutal example of Australia’s famous “emergency” syndrome, which goes something like this.

In the face of the emergency, we witness the breakout of deep collaboration and ripples of sharing and common cause spread across suddenly integrated and cooperative systems in the determined pursuit of unarguable outcomes with common purpose and shared commitment.

When the emergency subsides, all that goo0d will and common sense drains like water on sand, replaced with the tired and unhelpful reflexes of silo, sectional interest, short term obsessions and the ungainly rhythms of fracture and fragmentation.

That isn’t going to happen this time, is it?

Let’s be clear.

All of these insights are true, but none of them may be true everywhere or for every jurisdiction or agency. I just don’t know and I do know several places where they are not, or at least not in this concentrated form and not all the time.

We should see them as distinct detonations from the front line of digital combat where some of the troops are beginning to wonder about the cause about which lots of people (me included) keep telling them they should keep the faith. The problem is in the face of its variable and sometimes absent leadership, they are losing some of that faith in the face of variable evidence about its successful and sustained prosecution.  And that’s pretty demotivating.

These are not the conditions conducive to Australia’s opportunity to now take a step back, reflect a little on what has been transformed (or not) from the money and hard work we’ve invested in the last 20 years and then craft the mix of vision, ambition and pragmatic intelligence needed to make the big bets for digital transformation’s “next”.

We should be breaking away at this point, pushing Australia to a place of earned leadership and respect in this venture to remake governing, government and the work of the public sector for the digital age.

Instead of which, we might be in danger of not so much breaking away as breaking.  It’s a big moment for the bigger transformation project’s ambitions. We need to get this next bit right.

 

 



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