Searches for “digital transformation courses” have increased by 5000 percent in the last five years, according to Capacity. Every sector is hoping to adopt digital technologies to change how they operate and deliver value. But how do they make this a reality?

The answer lies in regulatory sandboxes to spur public sector innovation. A structured approach to digital transformation and partnerships with industry are also some of the ways to spur the adoption of digital technologies.

Dr Suraya Sulaiman, Innovation Provocateur at Alpha Catalyst Consulting helps organisations to accelerate their innovation. She shares how governments can power their digital transformation.

Regulatory sandboxes 

Governments can turn to regulatory sandboxes to drive digital transformation, which allows tech developers to test their products and services in a supervised environment.

Governments can work with service providers to trial tools that currently cannot be regulated, Dr Sulaiman shares. This gives governments the opportunity to learn more about the product first.

For example, Malaysia’s upcoming Regulatory Lab is looking to accelerate the rollout of online healthcare services. This ranges from platforms that will allow patients to attend virtual physiotherapy sessions to drug delivery services. They are currently recruiting agencies to test these services before adopting them widely, Dr Sulaiman shares.

If any issues arise during testing, sandboxes allow governments to respond “in a dynamic fashion,” Dr Sulaiman highlights. This is because developers can quickly tackle these challenges without worrying about real-world consequences.

Countries elsewhere have used this approach to trial up-and-coming tech. For example, the UK Civil Aviation Authority’s Innovation Sandbox allows companies to test drones effectively and safely. This development has brought Amazon Prime Air’s promise of drone deliveries a step closer to reality, Pay Space Magazine reported.

Ministry of Health Singapore started a regulatory sandbox for telemedicine services that will allow doctors to diagnose and treat patients remotely, according to its website. The sandbox will allow the Ministry of Health to better understand the risks and co-create mitigation measures with the healthcare industry before implementing these services.

A roadmap to digital transformation 

Governments also need a systematic approach to digital transformation.

First, they should set specific, attainable, and time-bound goals. An example of a concrete mission statement would be “all ministries and agencies are to provide cashless payment options by 2022”, highlighted in Malaysia’s Digital Economy Blueprint, Dr Sulaiman says.

Second, governments need to have clear reasons behind their objectives. This will offer them a sense of direction when they come up with strategies for digital transformation. “Why does this public service need to go digital? What is the value created?” Dr Sulaiman poses.

Third, governments should consider if they have the capacity to drive digital transformation. “Do we have sufficient human resources and machinery to support digital transformation in the public sector?” Dr Sulaiman points out.

A realistic assessment can help governments identify and address the gaps in their capabilities. For example, if the public sector lacks programming expertise, agencies might have to externally source for IT companies.

Fourth, governments need to measure impact in real-time so they can make the necessary adjustments quickly.

For example, contact tracing apps alert users to possible Covid-19 exposure, but their effectiveness depends on the speed at which they deliver this information and the number of people they can reach. Analysing this data will allow governments to understand how they can improve public services.

Partnerships

Governments can empower their citizens to drive innovation, as well as provide innovation for them.

For example, Malaysia’s institutions of higher learning are advocating for entrepreneurship education which encourages students to create new jobs on their own when they step into the workforce.

This could be one reason why Malaysia consistently ranks as one of the most promising emerging startup hubs in the world, according to Startup Stash.

The job landscape is shifting due to automation and many organisations have lesser need low-level expertise, Dr Sulaiman notes. Entrepreneurship will ensure that people remain employed even if organisations operate with fewer workers.

Governments can also work closely with the private sector to drive digital transformation.

For instance, the Chinese government took steps to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic through public-private partnerships, she mentions. China needed large numbers of face masks which could not be fulfilled by the public sector alone.

More than 3000 Chinese private companies joined hands with the public sector to produce 116 million masks daily, a research paper from Springer Link reported. A part of their production cost was offset by government subsidies, which helped these companies greatly increase supply.

Governments need to approach digital transformation methodically. They should also partner with industries and citizens to drive innovation. These are just some of the first steps to digitally transforming the public sector.