IT to support the transition to digital government: how?

Sebastian Lagana, senior analyst at TBR, says transformation to digital extends beyond technology to include intelligent systems design and a culture that supports innovation.

As the promise of improved service resultant from increased utilization of digital technologies permeates both the public and private sectors, there are two major foundational aspects required to generate desired return on technology-focused investments. The first is ensuring that organizations are appropriately structured to take advantage of new methodologies generated through adoption of technology and, second, that leaders within organizations enable their employees to pursue new methods of approaching complex problems.

Without these two critical aspects, investments into technology will generate only a fraction of digital disruption’s immense potential value, potentially mitigating future appetite for, and reinforcing cultural bias against, examining new and increasingly effective ways of operating government programs and delivering citizen services.

The 2016 Public Sector of the Future Summit, developed by Leadership for a Networked World (LNW) and hosted by the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard in collaboration with Accenture, brought together a wide range of public sector leaders spanning both U.S. and international central, state and municipal government agencies.

This year’s event focused on designing public services for a digital world and represented the 10th year Harvard has hosted the event. The key takeaway was simple in theory but incredibly complex in execution: When undertaking digital transformation initiatives, ensuring organizational systems are designed to work under new constraints is paramount to successful implementation of technologies that support both internal demands and a high level of services provision to a constituency.

Designing organizations that support digital transformation initiatives Systems design and intelligent organizational evolution supersede technological implementation in transformative engagements “If you went to bed last night as an industrial company, you’re going to wake up today as a software and analytics company,”– General Electric (GE) CEO Jeffrey Immelt.

Jeffrey Immelt made this comment during the opening remarks at GE’s 2014 Minds + Machines conference, and it was referenced at the 2016 LNW Summit. The quote underscores the massive transformative power of digital disruption and the way technological adoption forces organizations to rethink the way they have always done business, irrespective of past successes.

For a company with the breadth of GE, the idea that the CEO would reimagine his organization to understand that the future was no longer in manufacturing products, but instead ensuring interconnectivity of networked components to support a desired service outcome, is both notable and very forward-thinking. This type of forward organizational thinking, highlighting future constituent and client demands over simply performing the functions necessary today, is an excellent lesson to be applied to public sector organizations that are encumbered by significant structural and cultural biases.

One of the key components of the 2016 LNW Summit was defining how organizational systems are currently structured and, more importantly, how to design new structures that support building governmental organizations that better align to an increasingly digital world. Bureaucracy is a structure that has been successful in achieving its key design feature, but how can it be evolved to better address future system demands?

“Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the status quo has lost its status.” — Laurence J. Peter, educator and author Bureaucracy at its core is no more than a way to design systems with a certain desired outcome: minimizing corruption and maximizing compliance. The model still utilized across many governments today came into existence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to tackle the concerns of growing nations with disparate service needs, newfound geographical reach and enhanced size.

The underpinning of the system was enforcement, doling out punishment when rules were broken and installing a system of checks and balances to ensure corruption was not systemic. While the system achieved many of its goals, it was built on a foundation of distrust and the constraints put in place to ensure compliance inherently hamstrung agility, quick decision making and innovation.

Given the significant improvements in technological capabilities since the turn of the 20th century, it is relatively easy to see how this old design model is at odds with today’s rapidly evolving technological landscape and the changes in service delivery model experienced in the private sector on a daily basis. As citizens expect government to similarly provide services in the manner to which they have become accustomed, it is critical that governments examine their own organizational systems to ensure they are designed to support evolving service delivery methods.

While it is unreasonable to believe that 100-year-old, ingrained systems will immediately adapt to new inputs, there are some fairly simple ways in which agencies can better target outcomes beyond enforcement and compliance in order to better serve their citizens.

Five key tenets to evolving systems “Agility is the ability to adapt and respond to change. … Agile organizations view change as an opportunity, not a threat.” — Jim Highsmith, engineer and leader in agile software methodologies Given the need for business models to evolve away from the existing cumbersome bureaucracy model toward more agile organizations, emphasis needs to be placed on ensuring organizational design supports improved service delivery and constituent outcomes. There are five key pillars that need to be established before one can begin examining how to effectively evolve its organizational design: clarity of purpose, understanding of why services exist, incentivizing desired behavior, decentralization of function control and creating a culture that supports these pillars.

Clarity of purpose:

The simplest of the pillars, clarity of purpose, can be determined by simply questioning what is the underlying point of performing a given function, and whether or not the current structure supports the desired purpose. This is incredibly important to understand in advance of transformational initiatives such as digital government. If the purpose is not well defined on the front end, a new policy, procedure or technology will simply not produce its desired outcome.

Understanding of why services exist:

This is very closely related to clarity of purpose, but slightly different in that it humanizes functions within an organization. Nowhere is this more notable than in areas such as healthcare or social services, where procedure and policy often can cause decision-making paralysis for a direct provider of support. As stated by Sloan Gibson, deputy secretary of Veterans Affairs, “Stop thinking about rules and protocols and do the right thing.”

Incentivizing behavior:

Not just about giving handouts for a job well done, this covers the converse as well: Are there unintentional incentives that could potentially be driving organizations to act in certain ways? A tried-and-true example is related to budgeting: While all government organizations are under pressure to spend money, oftentimes a budget allocation is completely used by each organization under the idea that “if I don’t use it, I won’t get it next year and I may need it.” By not only articulating a reason for something but also ensuring there are systems in place that promote compliant behavior without leveraging enforcement, agencies are more likely to generate a desired outcome.


While there will always be a need for centralized control within large government organizations, the ability to delegate some decision making to individuals at the ground level supports better employee engagement, clarity of purpose, understanding of why services exist and input into how to incentivize behavior. Given that these personnel are often the ones who have the best perspective on what most accurately defines effective service provision, and who see the day-to-day impact on constituents, the ability to allow them to, as Gibson noted, “do the right thing” will benefit all parties.


Organizational culture highlights the inputs that allow service providers to succeed in the stated goal established via clarity of purpose. This could be as simple as setting up groups to pursue new and innovative ways of delivering services through utilization of new technologies or methodologies. It could also include an organization that embraces failure in certain initiatives, as long as failures are not repeated and generate valuable learning experiences.

Fostering a sense of one common goal, with the latitude to pursue it through multiple avenues despite risk of failure, is crucial to enhancing collaboration and organizational agility. Given the inherent difficulty of redesigning systems leveraging internal resources with ingrained biases and cultural leanings, external resources are likely to play a critical role in assisting public sector entities during their initial steps towards digital transformation.

How can IT and professional services vendors support the transition to digital government?

While there are great internal resources in the U.S. public sector, such as 18F, that support technical and change aspects of digital transformation, industry partners with significant advisory capabilities, such as Accenture, will prove invaluable to aiding agencies with designing organizational systems as they consider and undergo digital transformation. While the majority of IT and professional services vendors are capable of providing strong technical solutions, the ability for a proven vendor partner to effectively guide agency clients through the up-front planning and back-end change management processes will prove instrumental in supporting tangible, targeted objective achievement, ultimately driving improved outcomes for agency clients.

Sebastian Lagana, senior analyst at TBR