“Government-lead Digital Transformation is a Train wreck”

February 8, 2017 — Leave a comment

Preface: The UK’s “Government Digital Service” (GDS Team), the US’s “US Digital Services”  (USDS) and Australia’s “Digital Transformation Authority” (was DTO, now DTA) are all train wrecks in every meaningful measure of success.

Body*: Digital in Government has become a cause celeb for all politicians, civil servants and pundits, much less a movement/cult for everyone in IT & Tech and yet it still suffers from the lack of a coherent definition. In fact, it has become another catch-all notion for everything that its advocates would like to imagine it is (not unlike what we experienced w/”Big Data”) with no end in sight. These same advocates are tireless in their prognostications about the virtues and disruptive effects of Digital Government and yet cannot define these either in terms of tangible outcomes for everyone to see, much less measure. All of this hyping of the notion of Digital (and Digital Transformation) has set expectations so high, by so many, that when reality does come to the forefront it is clear that few (if any) of the promises made could ever be realizable.

This is basically the case with all the major Government-driven Digital Transformation Initiatives around the world. Each are positioned as “game changing and disruptive” in terms of impact and “immensely beneficial in respect to improving Citizen’s lives and the countries’ economy”, but alas (poor Yorick[1]) this has not been the case whatsoever. What has happened to these once noble initiatives is that all have been whipsawed by Politics & Politicians, much less driven to failure by feckless bureaucrats and civil servants (with a number of Contractors thrown in for good measure). This toxic mix of politics, fecklessness and incompetence has produced some major train wrecks in terms of cost-benefit analysis, positive societal impacts, etc. The three most visible of these are in the UK, US and Australia and their fate is seen by many as a pre-cursor to others on the horizon.

As with all train wrecks there is plenty for everyone to gawk at afterwards,  espouse opinions about and in some respects lessons to be learned. My analysis of these failures indicates that are typically three major clues to these impending disasters which were either ignored or not sufficiently addressed appropriately to prevent them;

1.- Strategy: For any major initiative to have half-a-chance of being successful there needs to be a well thought out Strategy and companion Execution Plan. It cannot be an afterthought, constantly changing or something written on a post-it note and stuck up on the wall. Strategic Planning is typically the domain of senior leadership (who are usually accountable for the outcomes being achieved), not a bunch of Techno Moonbeams sitting around in a room. It requires careful analysis of the current state, a view as to the future and the rationale for “why we must change”. It must always be built on a strong foundation (pillars) and have tangible outcomes defined (for delivery and measurement afterwards). It needs to identify the funding required  and resources needed.  It must be also be forthright and objective in characterizing the risks associated with its execution i.e. There is no free lunch.

2.- Leadership: Big ideas and Big Projects like Digital Transformation require Leadership from the top down. These Leaders must be empowered to succeed and yet accountable for success. Those are hard requirements to meet in Politics or Civil Service due to the constantly changing winds, continuous re-shuffling  and entrenched bureaucracies that must be contended with. Continuity of Leadership is the single biggest risk that must be managed and yet is the one given short shrift at every turn. A constant stream of feckless “Leaders” will insure a train wreck every time.

3.- Competencies: The easiest to see, and yet the most difficult to overcome. What makes someone a good Politician, Civil Servant or Technologist does not necessarily make them competent at diving Strategy or Leading a transformation program. Cheerleaders, Power Grabbers, Social Experimenters, etc. are not competent at either of these disciplines and yet in virtually all cases have key Leadership roles and in these failed programs, but typically no personal accountability for its success. Strategy and Transformation are not for the weak of heart nor the incompetent. You must have earned your role through experience (trial by fire), excellence (success at your mission) and expertise (knowing what needs to be done at every stage of the process to succeed). When in doubt hire an outside advisory firm to help you mentor and coach internal leadership candidates into these roles beforehand.

Digital is a fashion statement and rallying cry for all Governments. It can be a lot more than that for its Citizen’s if they would simply focus on Strategy, Leadership and Competencies as critical success factors in any Digital Transformation.

[1] “Alas poor Yorick, I knew him well” (Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” Act 5, Scene 1)

*-This posting appears in an edited version in the February 2017 issue of Information Age (UK) (www.information-age.com)

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