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What we’ve learned from two years of teaching digital to public service executives

'Public servants will need to play an important role in maintaining public trust and finding the right balance between using these technologies to improve the work of government.'

The public conversation around digital government has often focused on producing high-quality, easy-to-use digital services. An important aspiration no doubt, particularly as citizen expectations of digital service delivery are largely driven by their experiences with the private sector tech platforms that have become such a big part of our lives, leaving their digital interactions with government to feel inadequate by comparison.

Good digital service delivery can build credibility and trust with citizens, thus enabling the government to experiment and innovate further. Bad digital service delivery, or outright failures such as Phoenix, a payroll processing system for federal government employees implemented in 2016 which caused payroll problems for nearly 80 per cent of its recipients, damage that trust and credibility in ways that can persist and hold back progress for years. But what is becoming increasingly clear is that this is just the most basic table stakes for government in the digital era – a necessary but not sufficient condition to have a government that is relevant and effective in today’s world. As Scott Brison, former treasury board and digital government minister, often said, “in the 21st century you’re either digital or you’re dead”. But simply staying alive is not going to be good enough when we look to the issues on the horizon.

Public service leaders are increasingly facing policy issues that are inseparably tied to advancements in technology. The growing debate on the need to regulate social media companies as worries about the spread of disinformation and the very real-world impacts of these platforms on social and political stability is but one example. The rise in the use of data analytics and artificial intelligence to support decision-making in government is another. Public servants will need to play an important role in maintaining public trust and finding the right balance between using these technologies to improve the work of government and ensuring that they don’t perpetuate and amplify existing biases or harm the very citizens they were trying to help, something the Dutch government recently learned the hard way.

Participants in the Institute on Governance (IOG) week-long Digital Executive Leadership Program, which aims to improve the digital literacy and leadership skills of public sector executives necessary to manage and indeed thrive in a new era of digital transformation, shared their top of mind experiences from their respective organizations – all struggling to manage the fast moving waters of digital disruption.  These voices forged a lived consensus that:

  • Digital is no longer just an “IT thing”. Program, policy or service delivery participants are equally as seized with the need to be digitally savvy as those who are coming from more traditional IT organizations within government.
  • User-centered design and agile product management practices are seen to be the norm in the future, but are coming up against challenges in the current governance context.  Transformation leaders speak of barriers posed by a culture of compliance and risk aversion with the policies surrounding areas such as budgeting, procurement, and HR having not yet significantly adapted to digital era ways of working.  Digital transformation must be a whole organization endeavour involving culture, business practices, tools, and people.
  • The rise of social media and other digital tools that have become pervasive in the professional lives of public sector executives over the past decade is increasing the seemingly never-ending barrage of information that they must sort through. Staying current on trends and “visible” on social networking platforms while maintaining the time, space, and perspective to think strategically amidst their already packed schedules has become an increasingly difficult challenge for many.  A sense of overwhelming saturation and being ill equipped is feeding a growing sense of paralysis and transformation fatigue.
  • The positive aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic has been an acceleration of everything related to digital in the public service.  The impenetrable damn broke over the span of a weekend.  The long-standing resistance to allow public servants to work remotely or in more flexible distributed teams evaporated by necessity.  The nation’s business, its leaders and citizens needed it too. While there were, and continue to be, bumps in the road concerning access to technology and management practices for distributed teams, the public service has been remarkably successful in making the shift to becoming a truly distributed organization.  The pent-up demand was not imagined.  There are important potential long-term benefits to this operating model, particularly for a country as diverse as Canada and a public service that does not always achieve that same level of diversity. However, there is much concern about what the “new normal” will look like once COVID restrictions are lifted with the worry that the significant progress that has been made over the past year could be rapidly undone by a desire to go back to “business as usual” with value on compliance trumping innovation and risk-taking.

The impacts to citizens of the adoption of new technology are now regularly happening at a speed and scale that our governance institutions weren’t designed for. Helping policymakers and public servants to navigate the increasingly complex issues at the intersection of technology and public policy is perhaps one of the most important areas of work to undertake at this moment.  Canada’s commitment to “peace, order, and good government” is indeed being tested by digital disruption. The Institute on Governance is more motivated than ever to continue to do our part to continue to equip public service leaders to meet the challenge.

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This article first appeared in iPolitics.ca
By Ryan Androsoff. Published on Feb 26, 2021 11:21am

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