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
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 as change within an individual: their mindset and beliefs
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.
How are we transforming?
Digital transformation as a concern for problem framing (and how that’s a problem)
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
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
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 come from their expertise and knowledge, which doesn’t include the first-hand lived experience of the citizens they serve.
Digital transformation as something different than modernization
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...
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 thus 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.
Why transform anyhow?
Digital transformation as a demographic inevitability
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. The workplace then 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
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 have 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
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.
What evidence do we have to believe transformation is occurring?
Digital transformation as a difficult thing to prove
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)
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 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.