The changing state and digital transformation

A year ago, we published a book which asked, in relation to the digital transformation of government and the public sector, Are we there yet?

Twelve turbulent and disruptive months later, a better question might be “where the hell are we?” And to be honest, it is tempting to answer, given the uncertainties we face, “who knows?”.

But on the basis of our advisory work with governments, our recent research and talking to plenty of people inside and around the work of government and the public sector, here and in other countries, we think there are optimistic signs of positive movement and accelerating momentum.

In the second of a two-part series Martin Stewart-Weeks and Simon Cooper outline their optimism for digital transformation in government and what should come next.

Are we there yet?
Martin Stewart-Weeks and Simon Cooper on digital transformation

There are four propositions we’d like to offer as markers of the place we find ourselves in. Individually and together, they offer they offer both direction and hope, indispensable ingredients for the long, difficult journey of government transformation.

Phase transition: changing state

Before setting out the four ideas, we would like to offer a way to frame the conversation about the digital transformation of government and the public sector and suggest we are in the midst of a phase transition which has been going on for some time.

Neither of us are scientists but there is a little we understand about the phenomenon of a phase transition. A phase transition describes “transitions between solid, liquid, and gaseous states of matter, as well as plasma in rare cases…During a phase transition of a given medium, certain properties of the medium change, often discontinuously, as a result of the change of external conditions, such as temperature, pressure, or others.” (thank you Wikipedia)

We are witnessing many of the characteristics of a phase transition working on the institutions, habits and assumptions about the way we govern and do public work.

That is, the state of the state is changing. And it is doing so under intense and relentless pressure from a series of implacable external forces that include, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic itself, but also the longer-term impact of the transition to a thoroughly digital world.

We are witnessing shifts from relatively rigid and process-struck hierarchies to more flexible and adaptable combinations of power and action, in order to solve complex problems at local, national and global level.

Gradually, and not always terribly well, the state is becoming more legible and open, despite regular, untenable relapses into unnecessary, but reflexive instincts of secrecy and obfuscation.

We are creeping, sometimes rushing, towards a move collaborative and boundary-crossing form of governing, fueled more creative ways to use and share data. We are a long way from perfect, but the transitions are happening and bearing fruit.

We must go further along that road and where possible, faster.

As government and the public sector are changing shape, they are manifesting themselves in new forms to the citizens and communities to whom they remain accountable

Four propositions

Whether or not the phase transition analogy fits perfectly, we think it is close enough to give a sense of these deep, underlying shifts whose surface manifestations are the many and mounting stories of new digital tools, services and responses to problems people and economies and communities are trying to fix.

Where this might be heading, and how hopeful we are entitled to be that COVID has delivered a transformation dividend, depends on how well we engage these imperatives:

1. National, shared platforms

The shape of Australia’s public governance is largely determined by the shape of the federation, its processes and institutions. The shift away from COAG and towards a National Cabinet is emblematic of the first proposition.

We need to become much more adept at combining a suitable regard for local context and variation with careful investments in national shared platforms and capabilities, including digital, that are built once, used by everyone and support responses that fuel new service markets that treat Australia as a single opportunity.

In other words, the proposition is that we move towards what our recent AFR article with Tom Burton described as Service 4.0 – “a vast web of integrated public and private digital services, underpinned by data streams that together create a sophisticated economy-wide platform, linking public and private system for the benefit of all.”

2. Speed, intensity and agility

The COVID-19 experience has shown us that governments are capable of a combination of speed, intensity, agility and legibility when it comes to making and implementing policy, designing and delivering services and developing more effective regulation.

It is often said that governments (and perhaps all institutions) move at the speed of trust – more about that later. But what COVID has shown is that governments can move fast and with high and rising levels of trust and confidence. Not guaranteed, but possible.

So the second proposition is that these new instincts and practices, often backed by remarkable structural changes (have a look at Victoria’s ‘mission’ focused retooling of the big building blocks of public sector resources and capabilities) have to become usual and expected.

That means adopting collaborative and agile approaches in the application of data and evidence, and grounding open and conversational engagement with citizens and communities into the foundations of the design processes.

This includes the ability to interrogate and apply their expertise to learn new rhythms of an experimental mindset that discover, test, iterate and refine processes and services to stay adaptive to the forces of change.

Whilst an uncommon rhythm for government, integrating collaborative experimentation promises fit for purpose results and rising trust – a healthy pairing.

3. Pace layers of change

Our third proposition reflects a dilemma that has been a hallmark of the shift towards “e” or “digital” government (or even “government 2.0” – remember that?). That is the uncomfortable distinction between the pace and intensity of the ‘digital’ world and the pace and intensity with which government works and often has to work.

It’s hardly an original insight to remark that the world is increasingly fast and furious (feeding on fads and fashion, as Stewart Brand’s ‘pace layers of change’ would have it) while the world of governing is slow and deliberate, sometimes ponderous.

There are often very good reasons why we want government to slow down in order to go faster. Government is where clashing values, contested interests and contests of naked power get to be determined and held in some kind of practical shape. That is necessarily deliberate and careful work, or it should be. That means it often needs to be slow work. It is actually what keeps us safe and prosperous.

Fast decisions can be (but not always) bad decisions when complex and intricate questions of public value, the common good and the need to protect the vulnerable need to be properly weighed.

Nonetheless, our systems of public work cannot simply wish the world to slow down to accommodate the more sedate pace of culture, governance and even of nature itself.

The proposition is that we need a new accommodation between these two worlds, the fast and the slow, the urgent and the reflective, the need for speed and the equal imperative for discernment and good judgement.

The question of course is whether, broadly, the tools and instincts of the digital age– open, collaborative, agile, new ways to have conversations with more people, using shared platforms for more accessible and effective services and solving problems that matter to people might help.

Perhaps these elements, as well as being instrumental is forcing the state to change state, are also part of the response to the new conditions in which the work of the state has to make sense and contribute value.

4. It is only about trust

The final proposition is trust – to accept that everything governments and the public sector do is, in the end only about trust.

The Edelman trust barometer April 2020 update report reported a huge spike upwards in measures of trust in and towards government. It is fair to speculate some of that will already be leaking as the harder work of responding to COVID-19 grinds on and mistakes and anxieties start to surface.

Nonetheless, the last few months have earned many of our public authorities, and indeed the very notion of ‘public’ itself, something of a trust dividend.

The final proposition, important in its own right but running through all of the other three as well, is whether and how governments and their advisors decide to behave in ways that consciously aim to make sure the dividend is invested before it turns out to have been a flimsy bubble that will burst and leave us all very disappointed.

We’re hopeful that COVID-19 has jolted us onto a whole new trajectory on all of these propositions, including this one.

The unleashed new sources of momentum and motivation for the accelerating, but sensible transformation of the way we govern and tackle the vital, complex and exciting public work that determines the quality of the lives we live and share in common.

Luckily this is not a theoretical discussion, in the end, we shall see if that hope is misplaced.


Martin Stewart-Weeks is a former public servant and Ministerial chief of staff and now an independent advisor working at the intersection of policy, public sector management, innovation and technology. He ran a strategy and innovation group for Cisco’s public sector practice in Asia-Pacific and chaired the digital government advisory panel for the NSW Government. He co-authored the book ‘Are we there yet? The Digital Transformation of government and the public service in Australia’ (2019)

Simon Cooper leads on digital transformation in government for Deloitte in NSW. He has worked with 45+ government agencies around the world as a Consultant and as a Public Servant. He co-authored the book ‘Are we there yet? The Digital Transformation of government and the public service in Australia’ (2019)

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

Leave a Comment

Related stories