Digital Services — Review and Suggestions
The success or failure of the digital services teams in government needs to be looked into in the light of their purpose. In fact it would be inappropriate to think of it in terms of success and failure. It is their effectiveness in achieving what they set out to that should be the yardstick.
Every digital service have stated that their ultimate mission was to disrupt the government — change the way the government functioned — make it user centric and agile. These were not the traditional way the government operated. In the process, they have also saved the governments a lot of money by adopting open source, open access and cloud based hosting. The procurement process has undergone changes with the traditional system integrators being sidelined and SME contractors getting a foot in the government contract system. Vendor lock-in was avoided. The in-house digital enthusiasts got a platform to experiment under the umbrella of the digital services. The delivery has been quick and frequent. There have been lots of gains. The desirability of the existence of digital services cannot be denied. On the question of their effectiveness, the jury is still undecided.
The digital services came in with political patronage and by accident — generally to fix one or the other failed project, usually a website. This success brought them huge visibility. This however did not convert into acceptability, as should have been the case. Their influence remained dependent on the continuance of the political air cover from which alone they derived legitimacy — probably because they did not take up core projects; only the high visibility fringe activity. In my opinion the purpose of the digital service teams is to bring about a permanent change in the mindset of the government — make it user centric and agile, break the existing silo attitudes, embed its thinking and processes deep within the different agencies so that it becomes part of the system and does not require a distinct digital service team to take it forward. In contrast these teams have actually not progressed very much from web publishing and being a rapid rescue and response team. They have not been able to change attitudes across the spectrum. This is not to say that the teams have been a failure, but that much remains to be done. Also these teams have been more effective in smaller demographics with a desire for change from the past and less legacy issues of people, attitudes and infrastructure.
The teams may oppose this but a definite organizational structure is necessary for continuity and scaling, which the digital teams require. It is effective in building relationships across the agencies. It will keep the digital service team in operation and in achieving its goals even when the political cover is reduced/withdrawn. In fact some of the opposition to the teams could be because of the excessive political cover they enjoy. Legitimizing it will bring more acceptability. It will help to have their short and medium term mission defined. It will give the teams focus & direction and help prioritize. These are also necessary to attract and retain the talent to take forward the mission of the team. The teams presently seem to convey a perception that the current practices of the government are not correct and that they know best. This needs to change. No permanent change or capacity can be built on such a foundation. It needs to be conveyed, through action, that it is a collaborative venture. One simple way to bring agencies on board will be to ask for their suggestions and insights. Humility can take one far. The teams also need to address core issues — move to delivery of services, integration and interoperability to be effective and bring real and lasting change. The user experience from this will not allow for any roll back. It will help accumulate the critical mass necessary for the boom, i.e. permanent disruption. I would suggest that the teams should look at the needs of both outside users and those inside the agency/government as this will improve not only the experience but also their own acceptability within the organization and reduce resistance.
As an alternate, I will suggest some form of decentralization — maybe smaller digital teams assigned to individual agencies/ sub-divisions that work under the guidance of the central digital team though attached to and under the administrative control of the respective agency. This will get a buy-in from the agencies, as it will be collaborative; will give ownership to the agency, hence face less resistance and therefore more effective in bringing about the desired changes.
Lastly, the digital teams need to focus on future leaders — political and career civil servants –for creating the environment for permanent change as they being aware of and adept at technology, would be willing to adopt it for disruption.