Digital transformation has permeated all sectors, and the government is no exception. Governments are now thinking about digital transformation in a big way, mainly owing to the higher expectations of citizens and constituents. However, the nature of the transformation in the government sector is markedly different from the nature of transformation in the private sector and commercial enterprises.
Digital transformation of the government relates to the gamut of governmental agencies, programs, and entities leveraging digital technologies to improve their processes and systems. While the early initiatives, such as deploying computers in government offices, aimed at co-opting technology to basic processes, the latest wave of digital transformation seeks to embed and integrate technology into the core process itself. At the front-end of such digital transformation initiatives, citizens enjoy better services and engagement. At the back end, governments leverage technology to improve efficiency and cut costs in a big way.
Digital Based Interactions
The basic manifestation of digital transformation at the government level is in interactions with the people. Digital transformation enables digital interactions, such as sending electronic memos, receiving communications by email, government departments having responsive social media accounts, citizens being able to pay taxes and fines online, and more. The citizen’s interactions with a digitally transformed government is much easier and faster than before, improving their productivity, and leaving them free to engage in other pursuits.
At the back-end, government officials are equipped with the required tools and technology to enable digital interaction. A case in point is traffic police being equipped with mobile apps to check previous violations or track record of errant drivers, or apply the correct level of punishment on the spot. Traffic police can also use such apps to record violations in real time.
Governments across the world are also giving citizens a digital identification, for precise identification and better targeting of services. Digital identification paves the way for a single digital account and a single point of access for the entire gamut of government services, removing various impediments that stand in the way of accessing government services, or rendering a citizen’s obligations to the state.
Improvements in Services
A focal point of digital transformation of the government is in augmenting government based services. Digitizing key processes vested with government authorities, such as applying for a building permit, filing taxes, filing statutory compliance reports, and more, speeds up the process, makes things easy for service recipients, and infuses processes with a high level of accuracy. Interactive voice response (IVR) systems to answer questions and route requests, or agents manning online chat service in government websites enable citizens to receive a better level of service in a more efficient manner. Such initiatives lead to better returns for the tax dollar paid by citizens.
At the back-end, digitization of services improves the quality of record-keeping, cutting through the red-tape and other inefficiencies associated with the hitherto modes of paper or voice-based interactions. Such digital initiatives lead to reduced government expenditure as well. For instance, the facility to make online applications and transactions spare the need for governments to set-up, staff, and maintain costly physical facilities for the purpose. The governments could divert the tax dollars from such unproductive activities to more developmental works.
Digitization of services and the accompanying automation would free up about 30% of the government workforce in around a decade’s time. The services of the unproductive pencil pushers could be put to better uses. A start has already been made with the US Department of Human Services using Artificial Intelligence-based chat-bots and automated call centers in social services extensively.
Moreover, the online interface is impartial and neutral, replacing the human middleman, who could be biased or corrupt. The online system works through a set algorithm or programmed flow, which leaves no room for discrimination or application of subjective processes; rendering consistency, predictability, and fair play to the process.
Empirical evidence suggests the introduction of digital services reducing corruption in the government services in a big way. A classic case is the computerization of the reservation system of the Indian Railways, which has reduced the role of touts and the black market in the system.
Improvements in Public Utilities
A key manifestation of digital transformation in the government sector is in augmentation of public utilities. Use cases abound. For instance, sensor operated automated streetlights offer smart lighting system, improving the efficiency of streetlights and saving energy in a big way. Real-time big data analytics from traffic signals, combined with predictive analysis, streamline traffic and eliminate traffic congestion.
Governments are also adopting mobility and other cutting-edge technology to improve their services in a big way. For instance, a GPS enabled the mobile app, available to the general public, allow emergency services to identify the location of the victim the moment anyone uses the app to send out a distress signal.
Key Enabling Technologies
The key drivers of the digital transformation of the government are big data and the cloud. Going forward, the Internet of Things (IoT) is also set to drive digital transformation in a big way.
The cloud, which enables storing data in much easier and cost-effective way, and accessing it from anywhere, heralded the digital transformation in the first place.
Governments across the world are now using Big Data to augment the delivery of social services. Big Data analytics not only helps government improve the efficacy of the service but also target recipients with a high level of accuracy, reducing wastage. At a higher level, the government could apply analytics to access information stored by various entities, in a safe and transparent manner, identify potential problems or issues in a proactive way, and monitor the progress of various government schemes to streamline the process.
Governments have also started to apply Big Data proactively. Data emancipating from individuals captured through business processes, from IoT sensors, and from a host of other sources are increasingly being applied to refine models and processes and deliver greater value. An example is setting up of electronic gates to automate passport controls in airports, with passengers fulfilling all validations spared from going through the time-consuming manual process. Likewise, in future, the application of IoT, big data analytics, and other emerging technologies could be applied to profile people and speed up security checks. Such a system could identify criminals and suspects in a better and non-intrusive way, improving security and quality of life at the same time.
While the scope for digital transformation in government is wide, and in fact much more than commercial entities focused on only a narrow and specific set of objectives, governments face a big constraint of not being motivated by the bottom line. Again, unlike private commercial enterprise targeting a specific set of customers, governments do not have the freedom to select its customers.
Another key challenge is that the government, contrary to perception, is not a single entity. The national, state, and local level governments are markedly different in role and character. Often, these different levels of governments are controlled by different political parties, with markedly different ideologies and outlook to digital transformation. The underlying conflicts and silos is a key impediment to the effective permeation of digital transformation across all levels of the government.
Reaping the efficiency, costs and other benefits of digital transformation requires a change in work processes, staffing levels, skill requirements, technology adoption, and the very nature of citizen engagement. Change is always difficult, and resisted in any enterprise, more so with the government.
Digital transformation comes with the need for new regulatory and legal frameworks, especially in how data is collected and used. In fact, development of regulations in this front is a sign of the maturity of the digital transformation initiative. A case in point is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) in the United States, an agency born in the digital transformation of how citizen-consumers interact with banks and other financial firms. The Government Digital Service in the United Kingdom and the Digital Transformation Office in Australia are similar supporting agencies that came up as the government embarked on a course of digital transformation in a big way.
These challenges are a fact of life, and cannot be cast aside in the quest for digital transformation. While different governments have already applied digital transformation with varying levels of success, the digital transformation of the government sector at a scale and scope matching the commercial business sector requires effective solutions to co-opt the underlying challenges.