The hard road of digital transformation in the public sector

Digital transformation is never easy but it is particularly hard in public sector organizations. In this article, I reflect on some of the difficulties that I’ve seen in my own organization.

Stop for a second and think about one memorable example of a digital transformation. Which ones leap to your mind? It might be AirBnB, or perhaps it is Uber? The odds are that the example you’ve thought of is about a commercial startup that has created digital disruption and damaged or in some cases even sunk traditional incumbents. But they are few and far between, and the reality is that we can’t all be digital superheroes transforming our respective industries single handedly. And if you look at the public sector, that’s even less likely to happen. We can probably think of some incumbents we like to gripe about and would like to see them replaced but there is simply no equivalent of a startup that would make that happen - because most public sector bodies are by their nature monopolies.

But even in the commercial sector, the majority of people work in established companies and it is much harder to identify dramatic digital transformations that have come from within these established players. These businesses are often large with long term strategies defined, have well-oiled operational processes often supported by a massive number of legacy IT systems which represent a very large ball and chain. The digital strategies of these established organizations are almost inevitably going to include a large focus on “cleaning up” legacy IT systems in order to reduce costs and to provide a basis for future agility and innovation. This means that a lot of this so-called digital work is stuff that we would be doing anyway even if the digital word had not been invented. I recently read about a car manufacturer where a key digital change was to provide iPads to supervisors on the shop floor to avoid multiple trips back to distant offices. That’s a good use of IT but it’s stretching the definition of digital transformation a bit.

I’d like to draw an analogy from George Orwell’s classic novel, Animal Farm. In the story, the animals rebel and take over the farm and strive to create a new better society. Over time this falls by the way side, the pigs take over control and then start acting like the previous human owner. In the famous closing scene, the pigs are seen partying with humans and it is difficult to tell one from the other. So, what has this got to do with digital transformation, you might be wondering? Well, the way I see it is that in IT we are the “digital pigs” of the situation with our lofty ideals and goals of promoting digital transformation but since we are not going to invent the next AirBnB, the danger is that we will get dragged back into the morass of day to day IT work and simply started resembling the “IT Man” that we were previously and just lazily labelling “IT“ as “digital.”

What factors make public sector transformations so difficult?

So, having established in general that not many of us are going to be digital superheroes and that maybe we’re going to have a struggle to remain digital pigs, I’d like to consider four factors that make public sector transformations particularly difficult. These are distilled from my own experience in the United Nations, but I believe are highly relevant for most public sector bodies.

1. Complexity of the business objectives

The mandate of organization I work for – the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) – is “Our goal is to achieve food security for all and make sure that people have regular access to enough high-quality food to lead active, healthy lives”. Attempting to end hunger is a noble goal but highly complex one, also very dependent on a range of external technical, political and socio-economic factors. There is definitely no simple AirBnB style magic solution to this problem.

2. Multiple business lines

FAO’s technical areas span the field of agriculture, fisheries, forestry, and natural resources. FAO runs over 2,000 development projects in around 140 different countries, often with very specific country needs. It is an impossible task to get a grasp on all the technology being used within these projects, and their diversity makes it very tough to identify digital opportunities that could have a wide impact.

3. Who is the customer?

For a United Nations body, the question of who the customer is can be a vexed one. Is it the donor whose funds we are expending to deliver a project? Is it the country we are delivering a project to? Is it the poor people who are the beneficiaries of our projects? Is it the policy makers in the country or worldwide who will benefit from analytical information or reports being made available? Or is it everyone in the world because we are the United Nations after all! A large number of digital transformations I see focus on the customer experience but in a public sector environment there rarely is such clarity on who is the customer. It can also be difficult to gauge the value of public goods provided to customers of public sector organizations compared to the commercial sector where revenue from customers is an obvious direct measure of success.

4. Culture

Without a profit motive, public sector organizations in general can risk becoming inward looking and resistant to change. While that’s not exactly true of my organization, there are deeply ingrained ways of working and bureaucratic processes which tend support the status quo, so introducing innovation for example becomes a big challenge in an organization that is used to move at a measured pace (for good reasons).

Those of you who work in the public sector can probably empathize with some of the above factors. They represent yet more balls and chains which discourage real digital transformation.

How to remain a “digital pig?”

After a couple of years involved in digital transformation, I’ve realized that I’m not going to be a digital superhero and I need to be conscious of the need to remain a digital pig rather than being sucked back into a traditional IT role.

The Digital Strategy I developed for FAO does include a strong element dealing with core operations including a big push to move to Cloud-based systems and more disruptively a revamp of the business processes to manage projects. But we have also made an effort to make sure we go beyond that and are strongly pushing innovation. We have created a dedicated Innovation unit which is looking at emerging technologies that could have a major impact in agricultural production such as the use of geospatial data to map and monitor crops and pests, or the use of blockchain for food traceability.  

The good news is that even in a complex United Nations organization, introducing change does not necessarily require huge technical effort.  In one recent and surprisingly simple digital initiative we created a mobile application which brought relevant crop, weather and animal health information directly to family farmers in Rwanda and Senegal. While technically trivial in itself, it broke the traditional model of FAO working through governments, extension workers, and policy makers and spoke directly to the small land holders. In a commercial environment this would of course be considered as opening up a new business channel. 

We are also seeing how the public can become valuable information providers. Recently, we have developed a mobile app which allows for crowdsourced reporting of outbreaks of the Fall Armyworm pest which is presently damaging crops across Africa. Centrally, we are now able to report on the global spread of this pest thanks to the information provided by farmers in Africa.

While the big dollars are going into the more operational transformation initiatives, we are making a good impact with these mobile apps, as well as in exploring the application of emerging technologies. We are getting others interested and keeping in sight the vision of digitally transforming FAO. So, while there may be less opportunities for dramatic digital transformation in the public sector, it is still possible to instill change and drive transformation, but in many ways, it is more difficult in the public sector than in a commercial environment.  So, to finish by paraphrasing George Orwell’s book again: All digital transformations are equal, but some are more equal than others!

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