Digital Transformation In Government Hero Image with paper planes flying and one breaking away in shades of purple

Digital Transformation in Government

OXD spoke with senior managers and director-level public servants across Canada for their perspectives on Digital Transformation.

If you’re a public servant or working in a leadership role in government across Canada, chances are you've sat in a meeting, attended a presentation, or read a briefing note and have come across the words “digital transformation.”

So, what is digital transformation in government? What are we transforming and why? We conducted interviews with senior managers and director-level public servants in BC and Ontario to ask these questions and more. Their answers were rich, thoughtful, and nuanced. They are thinking about this topic every day and, if you’re reading this, we suspect you are, too.

What is the object of digital transformation?

Digital transformation as redesigning bureaucracy through service design and delivery 

illustration with two people removing road blocks in purples

“What’s being transformed? … Bureaucracy. Basically we’re trying to make government operate in a new way … because the old bureaucracy is so broken to the average citizen.” 

Delivering services using new and different ways is the real change underway in the public service. All meanings of the term digital transformation start here. That’s where the value is, where the action is, and it’s the beginnings of a theory of change. 

This is recognizable as the argument put forth by the UK’s GDS digital leadership as well as influential American digital government thinkers, “the strategy is delivery” and expressions like “delivery-driven government,” and “delivery-driven policy.” 

But while recognizable to those in the know, describing the purpose of government to be that of delivering services and focusing on the value exchange between citizens and government through a service is still deemed “pretty revolutionary”, even in 2019. “Orienting towards services opens up a larger discussion about makeup of teams, user-centred focus, and service delivery. It elevates front-end service delivery to higher standing.” 

So the humble service becomes a new way of seeing citizens and is the catalyst for a reconfiguration of structures that deliver services. The front-stage necessitates a new back-stage configuration, through formal roles, technology, and new ways of working. 

“Digital transformation isn’t just the product or the service, it’s the backend stuff as well, the new staff, the training, the comms, our process […] Much more than the capital spend, it’s all the things that happen once the vendors are gone.” 

Digital transformation as change within an individual: their mindset and beliefs 

“People are the thing that need to transform. We need to do things differently if we are going to deliver differently.” 

Interviewees referenced the idea of fixed versus growth mindsets, a willingness to learn and try new ways of working being a barrier within the public service. Personal change is scary and government may not be the most welcoming environment to try on digital transformation as a new idea. 

Resources Images Of Digital Transformation
For complete quotes from leaders in public service and a deeper analysis on “the object of digital transformation,” get the full Images of Digital Transformation research report.
Get the report

How are we transforming?

Digital transformation as a concern for problem framing (and how that’s a problem) 

“People who are used to being told what to do (solution is this) to now being told, based on context and expertise, solve this problem, come up with what’s best—that’s such a radical shift.” 

With a shift to a problem orientation, middle management appears to have a gap—an ability to write problem statements, an inability to research and articulate problems, and then an ability to move through a creative process after problem framing into the generation of solutions. This coupled with the multifaceted and complex nature of public policy problems in the twenty-first century, is unnerving for some public servants. 

Digital transformation as antithetical to rule-following bureaucratic behaviours

paper planes with one breaking away in shades of purple

“Bright and amazing people work here. Yet we hear, ‘This is the way we’ve always done it.’ People are waiting to be told what to do. You’re an adult! Think critically! So many times I’ve heard, ‘I’m just doing what I’m told.’” 

Some public sector employees see their responsibility as following orders and doing what their superiors ask them. Others, especially those who have made their way into more uncertain, open-ended problem-type work, see this as antithetical to what the change and transformation agenda of government really needs. 

Digital transformation as a battle for and with middle management’s hearts 

“I have this three layer theory; floor, middle, top; people at the floor and top are remarkably aligned. All the resistance is in the middle.” 

The public servants who occupy the middle of the public service bureaucracy are perceived as averse to change, holding onto a limited amount of positional power, and are portrayed as the major source of resistance in government for change and transformation initiatives. Middle managers’ positional status and power appears to have been gained through their expertise and knowledge that does not include the first-hand lived experience of the citizens they serve. 

Digital transformation as something different than modernization 

“Two terms: modernization and transformation, often used interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing. Doing the same thing but using new tech (to modernize) is different than doing something totally different (and also new as a result) which is to transform.” 

While some believe modernization and transformation are interchangeable, there is a subtle yet important difference. Modernizing is the "upgrading" of an existing service, process, or system using some new form of technology. Transformation is doing something different than the previous system in response to a problem. Doing the same thing, using new means and new tech is modernization. Doing new things and using new means, new tech, with new outcomes is transformation. 

Digital transformation as a fad that I can safely ignore... 

“We talk a big game, say all these things, need to modernize and transform and really, still see people sitting in cubes at desks in silos not talking to each other, expecting to do the same thing and get a different result.” 

Public servants have always been asked to change how they work. The methods of communications, the buzzwords, jargon, and slogans have produced a healthy amount of skepticism. A common response to these words: “it’s another fad” and therefore as an individual, “I’ll just wait it out and keep doing what I’ve always done.” 

The hyperbole of digital transformation may seem far away from modern ways of working (permitted and not) on a day-to-day basis, but it is light years away from pockets of government where ways of working would be recognizable to someone from 20 to 30 years in the past, delivered to a cubicle via a time machine, with a high degree of paper-based processing work, repetitive tasks, and arcane filing schemes. 

Resources Images Of Digital Transformation
For complete quotes from leaders in public service and a deeper analysis on “how we are transforming,” get the full Images of Digital Transformation research report.
Get the report

Why transform anyhow?

Digital transformation as a demographic inevitability 

“Demographics are on the side of digital transformation—younger staff will work in these ways, even if we tell them they can’t.” 

Interviewees suggested that behaviours and preferred (“modern”) ways of working appear to correlate with demographics of the workforce, particularly age. Transformation therefore occurs as the workforce changes. As people retire, others raised in a digital age enter the workforce and the workplace becomes a reflection of their skills, knowledge, and ways of being. 

Like any claim that something is inevitable, the interviewees we spoke with contested this position. “I would like to drill into this. It’s right, but it’s a simplification—there are nuances in the generation split that I would like to investigate. Why are some boomers already working digitally and why are some millennials old people in young skin?”

Digital transformation as a necessity, a strategy to increase requisite variety 

“Who thinks it’s broken? Anyone that tries to interact with government from the outside—and even worse in my sector’s context where we have people who have less education, less financial means—government is not fit for purpose.” 

What proof do we have to believe that government is not as effective as it could be? Some public servants simply point to the user research they possess through their work with citizens and their poor performance interacting with services, along with intensifying disparities of knowledge, education, and wealth in society. Often, the people most affected are those who depend on the functioning of a healthy government. 

Digital transformation as technological inevitability 

Digital Transformation In Government illustration of person looking at phone around Digital Network concept in purples

“Citizens expect to experience services in a particular way, not even digital, just how modern stuff works, the way things are done.” 

The rationale or impetus to transform, is often attributed to the simple reason that the world has changed around government. Citizens expect to behave and use new technologies to interact with government in the same way they interact with large multinational consumer brands.

We live in a culture soaked in narratives of modernism, progress, and technological advance. Digital resonates with that narrative. In many ways, our cultural primes us to receive, and often uncritically accept, that message.

Resources Images Of Digital Transformation
For complete quotes from leaders in public service and a deeper analysis on “why are we transforming,” get the full Images of Digital Transformation research report.
Get the report

What evidence do we have to believe transformation is occurring?

Digital transformation as a difficult thing to prove 

“What’s the proof it's happening? Well, pockets across government, doing research, doing Agile, multi-disciplinary teams; new legislation is big proof.” 

“Slow, imperceptible change, large systemic change is kinda like that. Then one day, ‘whoa!’ That changed a lot. Speed and time.” 

When you are living through large scale, multi-dimensional change as an individual, on a team, within an organization, in a place, situated in an economic, environmental, and global context, it is hard, if not impossible at times, to discern change and put your finger on the evidence that things are changing. On a daily basis, change is nearly imperceptible. It is only in retrospect, over months or years, that the distance travelled is better discerned. The pace layers of government move slowly. 

Digital transformation as a long slow haul (and that’s okay)

illustration of Hiking In Mountains with two people far away on different ranges in purples

“Rate of change, the pace at which this happens, it’s hard to notice evidence to have you believe it’s happening.”

As a public servant, if you can perceive the organizational rate of change and tolerance for novelty, you can align your initiatives along those time horizons. In doing so, you can—to quote Honey Dacanay—“become the new inertia” by replacing the old with the new.

Some change can be too fast for the system and the individuals inside of it to absorb. Quick wins are important to gain momentum, but large-scale systemic change gets measured in years, not weeks.

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The short interviews we performed generated a wealth of insights about the lived experience of digital transformation in government and made visible some strong opinions and powerful metaphors. Our full research report, Images of Digital Transformation, shares interview quotes, short analysis of the ideas behind the verbatims, and suggestions on future directions to pursue, implied within the various images of digital transformation.

Our hope is to not be prescriptive—we are not here to define digital transformation. We are simply here to render it legible, to shine a light on its shapes and contours, and to give a voice to those journeying through the public service to focus on their real concerns.

Resources Images Of Digital Transformation

Get the full Images of Digital Transformation research report

Get the full Images of Digital Transformation research report, with complete quotes, deeper analysis, and a chance to continue the conversation.
Get the report