Every country, state, city, vendor or consulting firm tend to have their own definition of what constitutes digital government. In many cases this is very similar to what we used to call “e-government” almost two decades ago. Also, most of the recipes to become digital resembles those that were imparted to become “e-something”. A few things might have changed – e.g. mobile apps have replaced web sites and portals – but most of the ethos has remained the same: citizen-centricity, life events, digital by default, are all repetitions (or reincarnations) of the same concepts.
Even more, the common wisdom now – pretty much like 20 years ago – still asks for digital to be driven from the top, for digital strategies to be ambitious, to accomplish “fully digital” by 202X (you can choose your X depending on jurisdiction). Let’s be clear, there is nothing wrong with this and it is indeed quite important to push digital transformation high in almost any government organization’s priority list.
However, recent history should have taught us something. If we still have the same objectives as 20 years ago, it is quite likely that we did not accomplish as much as we were hoping for with our “e-government” programs. Sure, technology progress since has been astounding, but would it be enough to help us succeed where we did not in the past?
As I was trying to find a metaphor to explain what we should do different this time, it dawned me by watching my son playing guitar. He the guy at the center of this picture.
He is a brilliant student at med school and has a great passion for electric guitar and in particular to cover the British band Pink Floyd and its lead guitar’s distinctive solos. Besides learning David Gilmour’s technique, he has been working with guitar effects to reproduce his sound. For those of you who are not into rock music, the sound produced by an electric guitar goes first into a device (or a set thereof) – usually operated with your foot – that process it by adding echoes, delays, distortion and so forth, to then go into an amplifier, which can add further processing (such as reverb).
He started with a fully digital all-in-one device, which is able to emulate a lot of different analog effects as well as amplifiers.
After a while though he noticed that he was not getting the type of sound he was looking for. Here’s a sample of one of his original songs using this device.
His approach was quite surprising. Rather than going for an even more sophisticated all-in-one device, he went back to what original guitar players used to do. He bought different devices – some analog, some digital – for different effects: one for distortion, one for compression, one for overdrive, and so forth. His view was that rather than having one device that solves all problems – including those he’ll never have – it was far better to identify the best possible point solutions to the sound problems he actually had.
This is how his pedalboard looks right now
Each box on the top and the right of the board is a different effect. However unlike with the all-in-one device where he could just select a specific configuration of virtual devices (for guitar players, a “patch”) by simply pressing a button with his foot, creating a configuration on the new pedalboard would require pressing a lot of buttons to switch effects on and off.
This is where the device on the bottom left comes into play. It is nothing else than a digital switchboad. All devices are connected to it and my son can preprogram a sequence of configurations and switch from one to the other by just pressing one button, pretty much like with the old device.
And this is how the same simple riff sounds like now. A much rounder, deeper, richer sound indeed.
So, what does this have to do with digital government anyway?
Well, this metaphor highlights five key decisions that are fundamental to digital government transformation success as much as they were for my son’s sound transformation:
- Focus on the actual problems you have and need to solve. My son focused on sound problems he had and looked for specific solutions. The same applies to digital government: rather than chasing nice-to-have demonstrations to show the value of a technology solution, it is better to go after must-have issues, possibly the toughest ones that we have been unable to solve before using a digital approach.
- Focus on what matters most. In my musical example, it is the sound that flows from his strings through the guitar pickup to the effect devices. In digital government it is all about the data. Looking at data, what it tells us, how it can change, create or eliminate services and processes is the way to go. As opposed to the traditional view that still favors service-centricity over data centricity.
- Use a platform. In the guitar example the digital switchboard on the bottom right of the picture is a simple platform that supports a growing number of devices, allowing them to be dynamically connected as well as replaced over time. Same with digital government: a digital technology platform is the foundation to allow different data-driven solutions to be integrated and evolved.
- Leverage the ecosystem. Moving from the all-in-one box to the new pedalboard freed my son from dependencies on a single suppliee. He can now source his devices in many different ways: online, in shops, second-hand, borrowed, or even virtual. In digital government, moving from a one-size-fits-all to a more modular approach allows a variety of ecosystem partners to be brought into the picture. This ranges from intermediaries for the consumption of digital government services (let’s face it, it is more natural to interact with your online bank, e-commerce retailer or even social network than with your government) to providers of key components, such as identities (at least for those governments that are ready to accept true identity federation).
- Be patient. The term “digital” suggests velocity. And most digital government strategies express impatience and ambition. However pretty much like building the right combination of guitar effects takes time and perseverance, scaling digital government from individual solutions to a government-wide transformational approach takes time and perseverance. It crosses several budget and administration cycles, elections, leadership changes. It is going to be a long and winding road, paved with suboptimal steps driven by compromise. And it will definitely cost more than you expect, pretty much like my son’s current pedalboard is about five times more expensive that the previous one, and counting.
Of course you can well conclude that this metaphor makes little sense and that top-down transformation is the way to go. This is indeed very possible in the few places where administrations do not change or change very slowly or very little. Also, you can always compromise and – to stay with the musical analogy – accept music sampled and mashed-up through a computer (which is the way much pop music is produced today) as opposed to music performed live on stage by real artists.
If you pursue the five principles above though, you’ll be ultimately able to get to something like this:
which I am told is David Gilmour’s own stage setting (a huge device box on the left and his actual pedalboard on the right).
And it may end up sounding like this.
For Gartner clients who are interested to get a deeper understanding of the roadmap to follow these principles, we have developed a digital government maturity model (login required)
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Love it! Being conversant in guitar, prog rock, etc., I like the metaphor.
I also find that modularity, however, implies complexity and is not for the oi polloi. I, for example, not being such an accomplished gilmourist like your son, would go for the simpler, if imperfect, digitally integrated workaround (and obviously avoid live exhibitions of Pink Floyd covers thereafter!!). From my experience with organizations, I’d say that most are like me. [Then in practice, as you know very well, large shops typically end up with a hyper-complex mix of integrated and modular solutions, requiring four hands and a dozen feet just to play Samba Pa Ti!]