Let me Digitize It for You: Using External Digital Teams in Government

In many ways, institutions represent tradition; their strength lies in the mere fact that they have been there for a while, people are acquainted with them and the way they work (be it effectively or not). This is reflected in the overall functioning of organizations representing the institutional set-up of a country. Hence, the difficulties of modernization. After all, for a public institution, modernization means departure from what makes it legitimate — tradition. Digitalization is in essence an act of modernization and, because of the above mentioned, it is among the most anxiety-inducing terms for today’s governments. New technologies are overturning many of the traditional approaches for interaction between organizations and individual agents. For governments it is now obvious that they need to learn how to ride this wave of disruptive forces, but they are still struggling with the ways to do it.

Parachuting ‘task-force’ teams to public organizations to design and implement their digitalization strategies has been one of the approaches used by some of the pioneers in government digitalization. Although both USDS and GDS have faced a considerable amount of criticism, I believe external digital service teams could be an effective means to an end, contingent on proper planning and teaming strategies.

External experts can bring a fresh perspective to the work of an organization and help re-focus the latter on service usability and user-centred design. As mentioned, most public institutions are structured as agencies of years ago. That structure, besides inadequate to the modern context, makes professionals working there to adapt to this old structure and its functioning. Traditionally, most public servants are risk averse and resistant to change. That is not necessarily because of backward thinking. Sometimes civil servants with years of experience have such in-depth knowledge about their organization that perceive some disruptive practices as dangerous, if at all legal. This was reported both in the cases of USDS and Ontario. The institution is “the rule”, the people working in the institution are the institution. Therefore, going against the established rules means going against the essence of their work, not to mention that in practice it is often literally illegal. Such concerns are definitely absent in the mind of whippersnappery Sillicon Valley twenty-something-year-olds. The exclusive focus on results, together with the “don’t ask for permission, ask for an excuse” mentality are probably the real disturber in bureaucracies — one that could hardly be cultivated from within.

That is not to say that there are no forward looking public servants. There most certainly are. Empowering them, however, is not an easy task and an external task force could be helpful in that regard as well. Like in the case of USDS, an outside team could give civil servants the try-and-fail space, which anyone with an entrepreneurial mindset needs. Because professional growth in public institutions depends heavily on reputation and number of years served, the potential risks of undertaking a reform which involves a considerable risk of failure is a higher bet than most civil servants would take. An external team, on the other hand, could potentially have the political support higher in the governmental hierarchy, which would allow it to experiment despite risks involved. Risk outsourcing could actually be the most important ingredient making external task force the better formula for digital transformation. On its basis, the external team could actually build better relationships and modes of collaboration with the civil service. It is the win-win needed in order to mobilize support within the institution.

Last but not least, smaller external teams bring humility to the process of digital transformation. Applying an entrepreneurial approach to institutional digital transformation implies smaller, more tangible targets, as well as an agile, lean approach. That is certainly not an approach typical for government agencies. For years, agencies have specialized in fighting over budgets. It is not efficiency that is ultimately the target of an agency director. It is exposure, number of transactions and everything else which could legitimize the existence of her/his agency and make it a mutual concern (and possibly responsibility). If a citizen is to wait for a month to get their passport printed, they would think there are so many people waiting for that service, it is needed. The more the public perceives a service as crucial, the more political leadership would be willing to invest in it. The more political leadership invests and engages with an agency and the services it offers, the higher the stakes not only for the agency director, but also for the political organs which have supported its budget, etc. This is how the phenomenon of ‘shared responsibility’ occurs. As a result of it, in the end, hardly anyone “owns” digital transformation. It is expensive, yet unaccounted for. An agile approach turns this process around. It targets quick wins and measurable results, which brings substantial change to the very perceptions of reform.

That being said, there certainly are concerns related to the introduction of digital teams to government. It is important to find the right people on the ground who could effectively own the processes after the digital service teams are gone. That is contingent on the capacity of digital task force to recruit and integrate agency employees to be integral members of their team, as opposed to being their ‘customers’. Building capacity as well as relationships on the basis of which the centralized digital service could build on successes is crucial. Managing that, together with the implicit message that, if external experts are coming to fix your problems, then you are incapable of fixing them on your own, is a prerequisite as to how successful digital teams in government are. However, I am optimistic of the capacity of digital service to build the right strategy to address those issues and push the legacy barriers undermining digital transformation.

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