Martin Stewart-Weeks & Simon Cooper
April 2, 2019

Digital govt: Are we there yet?

Transformation

Digital govt: Are we there yet?

Digital transformation: Are we missing the most interesting half of the plot?

It's budget (and election) time again. The federal Government will doubtless announce some additional funding for digital transformation projects including for digital identity. This follows last November's new Digital Transformation Strategy which declared that all Commonwealth services will be available through digital channels and with a goal to make Australia a top three digital nation by 2025.

All well and good so far as it goes.  But is it far enough?

In our forthcoming independent book Are we there yet? The digital transformation of government and the public sector in Australia (to be released June 2019), we argue that this is a story missing half its plot – and quite likely the most interesting part.

For the last 20 or 30 years, we've construed digital transformation here in Australia, in common with most other countries too, largely about improving the transactional functions and activities of government.

Successive waves of the digital revolution in the public sector have not embraced a much bigger challenge – the need for governing and government to find a new "theory of the business" – which technology has largely caused and to which it is an inescapable part of the response.

The watchwords have been speed and convenience and cost saving. Nothing wrong with any of those. But we need to work out what digital is doing to some of the core assumptions about the context, mission and capabilities that shape a "theory of the business" for the way we conceive of, and then execute, the business of governing and the work of the public sector.

Many of those assumptions are being tested and found wanting.

We think the best way to frame the challenge is within a digital transformation "diamond" of four big changes:

  • Changes in the role and purpose of government as new questions about public work and public value are testing the purpose and practice of many of the institutions of governance;  a new ‘theory of business' is emerging around persistent and successful solving of complex public problems rather than the accumulation and exercise of power and authority.
  • Changes in the world and the big social, economic and political shifts of power, risk and vulnerability that fashion the risks and opportunities that governments are trying to manage.
  • Changes in technology, especially the new relationship between people and machines and between our ability to generate data and information and our capacity ethically and transparently to turn them into insight and knowledge.
  • Changes in the work of the public sector, and changes to the way the public sector works, with big implications for talent, leadership, culture and systems.

At the heart of the "diamond" is the "new public work". This combines policy, design and execution capabilities with digital platforms and tools, mobilising collective intelligence and a new ethics of open and accountable design with and by people and communities.

Digital transformation will be "there" when it animates the new public work so that people thrive, and human possibility expands for everyone, in a very different and rapidly changing world.

Martin Stewart-Weeks is an independent advisor who works at the intersection of government, public policy, technology and innovation. He has held roles as a Ministerial chief of staff and policy advisor, and has worked in industry at Cisco, Deloitte and PwC.

Simon Cooper is a Director who specialises in the digital transformation of government for a leading digital consultancy in Sydney covering governments across Australia and the globe.

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