Business IT Alignment

Rewiring Government for a Digitised World

The following is an excerpt from Digitizing Government: Understanding and Implementing New Digital Business Models by Alan Brown, Jerry Fishenden and Mark Thompson


Politicians have recognised for decades that modern technology offers the opportunity to bring significant improvements to the public sector. Yet our public services have been largely bypassed in comparison with the impact of technology in the private sector, leaving governments struggling to meet the needs of an increasingly tech-savvy population accustomed to responsive, tailored and personalised services.

The result is that governments risk becoming ever more isolated, inefficient and out-dated, artificially separated from the world outside and citizens’ expectations by their exclusive monopoly provider role, yet unable to deliver the quality and responsiveness expected from their uniquely privileged position. As a result, their relevance, and even legitimacy, is at stake.

Governments have also been pre-occupied with repeated efforts merely to put their existing transactions online, whereas elsewhere we have seen the emergence of truly digital organisations. Whilst modern technology is typically the enabler of change, the move to digital is not principally about technology. Successful digital organisations usually have operating models clustered around speed and adaptability, exemplified by maxims such as “show don’t tell” and “done is better than perfect”. The culture that enables organisations to work well in this way often contrasts strongly with accepted best practice: digital transformation requires redesigning and re-engineering organisations on every level, not merely delivering their existing services onto a computer screen.

Public service organisations now need to successfully reinvent themselves as truly digital organisations, and ensure their investment in digital transformation delivers the intended outcomes in terms of meaningful service improvements. For this to happen, we need an improved understanding and consensus on what being a public sector organisation means in our digital, twenty-first century.

The context within which this digital public services reinvention needs to happen is the much broader transformation taking place in our personal lives and how we conduct business – driven by a constant stream of digital technology changes, optimised production practices, and flexible global delivery models. There has been a sea change in the way users expect to use technology: it has become cheap, easy to use, consumable like a utility, always on, mobile, and open (working seamlessly with everything else – well, most of the time anyway). At home, we have become sophisticated users of such technologies, and of the flexibility and freedoms they enable. There is an increasing, and undeniable, demand to see these same benefits realised in public services as everywhere else.

A significant enabler of this digital transformation has been the use of technology platforms, such as Apple's iOS operating system (which powers iPods, iPhones and iPads alike) or Google's Android (which powers the majority of today’s mobile devices). These platforms have stimulated whole ecosystems of organisations to build products and services, attracted by the volume of demand that they generate. Such platforms can drive astonishing rates of innovation, investment, choice and competition. However, until recently very little of this platform-based thinking – and its associated benefits – have been emulated within our public services.

There is a stark contrast between these emerging business models based on digital platforms and the general state of our public services: the latter are all too often underpinned by idiosyncratic processes, point solutions, top-down assumptions about users’ needs, often exclusive contracts based on obsolete commercial models, and out-dated systems. Whilst some of the worst organisations in the private sector also share similar structural and management failings, their existence in a competitive market means we are able to take our custom elsewhere. As a result, poorly performing companies ultimately decline and fail, whereas governments – isolated from such dynamics – need to take conscious and deliberate corrective action if they are to modernise and improve: as citizens, we have nowhere else to turn.

To be truly effective, digitizing government will involve re-imagining the way in which our public services are conceived, designed, operated and delivered. The move to digital will allow us to separate out important services that matter from resource-consuming internal overheads: to move from multiple versions of the same thing, organised around the internal needs of the bureaucracy, to better services organised around the citizen. We can ring-fence total government spending, and yet increase the amount spent on services, by becoming much more selective about whether we wish to spend our taxes on institutions, bureaucracy and supplier margins – or on people and services.

“Digitizing Government” makes no claim to have all the answers: instead, we aim to open up a broader dialogue about the future of public service delivery, by making the subject more accessible and relevant. Our purpose is to bring together a wide range of experiences and lessons learned in a variety of organisations inside and outside of the public sector, to set out a vision for what a truly digitized government needs to achieve, and to offer insight and guidance on how to get started on that journey. In setting out principles for organising our public services, our aim is to introduce our experiences and thinking to a much broader audience of citizens and practitioners who, we hope, may also start to demand better public services from an informed standpoint of the art of the possible.


Digitizing Government: Understanding and Implementing New Digital Business Models by Alan Brown, Jerry Fishenden and Mark Thompson. Published by Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 9781137443625


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