Bringing public services into the digital age

Governments may take a different route than the private sector on the road to digital transformation. But they need to embrace tools like mobile, cloud, collaboration, analytics and automation to create the kind of public services that Canadians demand these days.

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Canada’s public sector is moving toward digital transformation for a lot of the same reasons the private sector is headed in that direction. But government may take a different route — and face vastly different speed bumps — than corporate enterprises.

Let’s look first at what’s driving Canadian government departments into the digital age. In a recent webinar held by GTEC, the two main drivers were nicely summed up as demographics and digitization.

On the demographic front, millennials are becoming a bigger proportion of the overall population … and the public service workforce. As citizens, they’re demanding more convenience, choice and flexibility in accessing government services ranging from driver’s license renewals to passport applications. As public servants, they want a work environment that’s mobile, collaborative and tech savvy.

Many of those things can be provided to Canadian millennials — in their roles as citizens and public servants — via digital technology. The same shift in demographics and digital technology is revolutionizing the private sector, too.

“It’s not just about digitizing paper records. Now it’s about fundamentally reshaping entire industries. … Every single industry is going through that same transformation,” said webinar guest David Senf, vice-president of IDC Canada’s infrastructure solutions group.

To make public services truly digital, governments must embrace tools like mobile, cloud, collaboration, analytics and automation, then “wrap all of those together in security,” he said.

In Senf’s view, PaaS will be especially critical to creating the kind of public service that Canadians demand these days.

“We’re moving away from being a bunch of clouds and extending into PaaS and IaaS,” he said. “It really is extending out into PaaS that will change the nature of how quickly governments can interact with the public, whether it’s healthcare or transportation or at the federal, provincial or whatever level.”

So those are some of the key tech tools Canada’s public sector needs to use. But how quickly are they getting on board? And what barriers are getting in their way?

The folks at Deloitte may have some answers. Late last year, they surveyed more than 1,200 government officials in 70 countries; they also conducted interviews with 130 government leaders and digital experts in those nations. The results show how Canada’s public service stacks up against its foreign counterparts on the digital transformation front. Here are some highlights:

  • 67 per cent of Canadian government organizations say digital technologies are disrupting the public sector to a “great or moderate extent,” topping the global average of 53 per cent
  • 64 per cent of Canadian public agencies cite citizen demand as the main driver of digital transformation, the highest percentage among all nations
  • only four per cent of Canadian government organizations use customers to co-create and use open source technologies to deliver their digital services, the lowest rate among all surveyed nations
  • not a single Canadian government organization in the poll reported being ahead of the private sector in terms of their digital capabilities; by comparison, 30 per cent of public agencies worldwide believe they’re ahead of the private sector

Why is Canada’s public sector feeling (or indeed falling) so far behind the private sector? According to a statement in the report from Richard Carson, a partner and digital government leader at Deloitte Canada, “the top barriers include too many competing priorities, lack of an overall strategy and insufficient funding.”

Low funding could certainly hamper their ability to deploy all of those digital tools we listed earlier. But aren’t “competing priorities” and “lack of an overall strategy” less about costs and more about organizational culture?

Culture is an issue for digital transformation in the private sector, too. It’s also something that may take a lot more than money and tech tools to transform.

Illustration: Mark Glucki

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