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How Government Agencies Can Digitally Transform

Steve Rubley is the President of the Government Division at Thomson Reuters.

It has been over a year since Covid-19 brought much of the world to a standstill. One of the lessons that businesses have learned is the importance of and reliance on technology. Businesses that had already invested in the digital transformation of their operations have been better able to survive and even thrive during the pandemic.

The same is true in the public sector, and unfortunately, there are many more examples of governments that have struggled to serve their citizens because they had not made similar investments. A 2020 Granicus Government Survey reported that a shocking 82% of U.S. government officials believe their agency needs to become more technologically advanced. The reality is the private sector needs a high-functioning public sector. Whether it is a backlogged justice system or something as simple as waiting in line at the DMV for hours, each is a loss of productivity and a drag on the economy.

The pandemic forced national, state and local government agencies into crisis mode as they struggled to meet skyrocketing demand from citizens in need. Health and safety restrictions forced governments to adapt to new virtual ways of working. Governments that had invested in technology were better able to serve the public while governments that had not struggled. In many cases, traditional, manually intensive paper-driven ways of working continue to be the norm. Those services were hardest hit by the impact of Covid-19. Many agencies did not have the manpower to meet the increasing demands for help.

To make things even more difficult, the crippling economic impact of the pandemic has also resulted in millions of Americans having a genuine need to access social services for the first time. In some cases, such as in the justice system, where access to justice had ground to a virtual halt, the impacts can have an enormous effect on someone’s life. This TIME Magazine article highlights the backlog in some areas: “New York City alone is bogged down with about 49,000 pending criminal court cases, while Maine has 22,000 pending criminal cases, officials say. Florida’s court system says it needs $12.5 million to crawl out from beneath a mountain of more than 1.1 million stalled cases.”

Prior to the pandemic, many members of the public would accept moderate levels of service from their governments. But with many of us having spent the last year shopping, ordering and working online, government service levels are being seen as increasingly unacceptable. The frustration that the public is feeling is compounded by the very real struggles — including precarious employment, social isolation, health concerns, stress and mental health challenges — that many are facing.

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To address this frustration and make their digital transformation successful, governments should consider the following:

• Assess how neighboring agencies operate. Former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “States are the laboratories of democracy.” While he was not talking about digital transformation projects, this quote applies to government agencies. In most cases, another state, county or federal agency has already recognized a similar transformation need and has at least attempted to address it digitally. It is critical to identify these efforts first. Because of the unique constraints faced by government agencies, other agencies will give you a better idea of how to approach transformation rather than looking to the private sector for examples.

• Audit your processes. Next, identify the process that needs to be digitized before you begin looking at any technology. As Bill Gates puts it, “…automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”

• Invest time in getting staff to buy into the project. An effective tactic to get staff buy-in is the “Ikea Effect.” The idea comes from studies on consumer behaviors that found stronger brand loyalty and decreases in post-purchase dissonance when the consumer participated in the “build” stages of the final product. In technology, this could be accomplished by sharing early wireframes, holding status product demonstrations, voting on the first functions to be digitized and other process steps.

• Start small. Start with processes that offer the greatest value with the lowest level of effort in the shortest amount of time. This helps any transformation process gain early momentum, which is critical.

Adopting change requires strong leadership. Strong leaders need to be bold and help lead the change within their agencies.

Historically, investing taxpayer funds in modern technology, including cloud-based solutions, has been a lower priority for elected officials. As the U.S. rolls out the latest stimulus package, we need to have a conversation about how we can invest to ensure that funds are being used in a way that is of most value to citizens in need and ensures that our government can continue to serve the public, both now and beyond the pandemic.

Recovery from the pandemic will take all of us working together, and the private sector needs the public sector to do its part on a number of fronts. The funding to modernize their systems is available. Government agencies can invest in preventative measures that will expedite the delivery of funds to those in need. Similarly, some funds need to be invested in ensuring that the fundamentals of government can continue to serve the public. Improving access to justice, safeguarding basic human rights, helping out those most in need all must be core tenants of how we build America back better. We have the opportunity. Let’s make government work for the people it was intended to serve.

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