What are the four essential elements of transformation?

By Gordon Heap

Collaboration, service design, innovative procurement and learning are key elements of government transformation.

Main image: Jennifer MorrowCC BY 2.0

Changing government can seem like a massive undertaking. It’s a beast that sometimes refuses to budge from the way it’s been working for decades. But look inside and you’ll find plenty of good ideas.

Public service that is efficient and works for citizens can be broken down into four key elements. Governments around the world are already using them, and so can you.

1. Continuously collaborate with colleagues

Communications and collaboration in government are becoming more social and less structured by hierarchies. This allows officials to share ideas more freely and encourages bottom-up innovation, encouraging people to come forward with their ideas in a more informal setting.

Singapore, for instance, has installed a government-wide internal Facebook network. This has reduced the number of internal emails and led to an “explosion of activities”. Traditional siloes between ministries are breaking down with cross-government communities of practice and better engagement between managers and staff. The platform is also being used by agencies to lend their skills to other units in need.
Image: Jennifer MorrowCC BY 2.0

Meanwhile, city officials in Indonesia use WhatsApp to coordinate and track work. The Mayor of Makassar is reportedly a member of 200 chat groups, where employees send him selfies to prove that they are at work. In the same city, traffic police officials share updates with each other on the chat service.

Audrey Tang, the Digital Minister of Taiwan, has opted for “radical transparency”. You can only ask her questions publicly and every one of her meetings - internal or external - is transcribed and published online. She says that this has resulted in bureaucrats becoming “very innovative and risk-taking”, because they get credit for the good ideas.

2. Design and build citizen-led services

Good services are designed and built around citizens, while poor ones are built around departmental structures.

When the UK government started to reform its justice systems, it began by mapping services the way users were seeing it - no departmental names and structures, just the service that people wanted to get. The result was a complex map of events and processes people had to go through while dealing with the courts (image below; full screen version here).

The UK Government Digital Service founder Mike Bracken said that the system was “never actually designed”. Instead, it was “the result of years of accretion, ad-hoc process on top of ad-hoc process, letter by letter, form by form”. “It needs a good dose of proper service design thinking”, he wrote.

Central government departments have been charged with making service design much more iterative and citizen-centric. In New Zealand, for instance, officials go out to public places to ask users for their feedback on basic prototypes, rather waiting to have the entire product built.

Governments are also reorganising themselves to encourage officials from across departments to work with each other. Here a concept called “devops” comes into play. Functions that commonly work separately on the same project are now brought together to work in teams. This can involve developers and operations teams sitting together to code a website, like in Singapore. Or it can involve ‘labs’ like the ones in Malaysia where operations and policy professionals thrash out new approaches to policing and education.

3. Partner with the private sector

The private sector can either be your competition or your partner, depending on how governments look at it. But all leading digital governments agree that there is much to gain by working with companies, and they have developed different models of doing so.

Estonia almost never builds services in-house, but takes them over once they’re built. The government prefers to work with agile companies, avoiding “vendors who work in classic and cumbersome ways”, the country’s GCIO Siim Sikkut says. Companies with “cool” ideas can also test them out with the public sector, he adds.

Singapore has begun to trial innovative procurement models that allow companies to take risks and pitch new solutions to the government. One approach it is using is “regulatory sandboxes”, where companies can trial new services without fear of legal backlash. Data, fintech and tourism companies now have the opportunity to push the boundaries within a limited framework, while governments can figure out how regulations need to be adapted to keep up.

Israel issues ‘challenge tenders’ for startups and smaller businesses to pitch to government. Rather than tendering with a pre-defined solution, they lay out the policy and service challenges and ask for ideas to solve those. “We have a problem, now let’s tender a challenge to address the problem. Let’s not define a solution,” says the Chief Technology Officer of Digital Israel.

Companies keen to partner with government are also changing the way they work. IT services company DXC Technology, for instance, has set up a lab for governments to experiment with digital services. The Digital Government Experience Centre provides support from the very beginning with designing citizens’ digital service journey to testing proofs of concept.

4. Learn from others and ‘do less’

Finally, governments must not be afraid to ask for help and borrow lessons from others. “Do less” is one of the core digital design principles in the UK: others must be able to reuse and link into platforms built by government, it said.

In the same vein, governments must borrow from others where solutions are already worked out. There is a growing movement of governments coming together to learn from each other, such as the self-selected D5, but it remains an exclusive group of developed countries.

And when in doubt, turn to citizens for help. Taiwan has embraced this agenda by involving citizens extensively in their policymaking process. In the meantime, civil servants in Sao Paulo asked citizens to volunteer to train public servants in certain areas, and about 200 people came forward.
When in doubt, turn to citizens for help.
All four of these elements have been borrowed from governments that have already tried and tested them. When it comes to transforming government, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. The answers are already there.

Gordon Heap is Director and General Manager for the Enterprise Services business with the Singapore Public Sector at DXC Technology.