I recently saw a link to an interesting new study about the impact of digital technology in the retail sector. The conclusion was that the future of retail is digital. Right. And wrong. I suspect the future of retail is retail, transformed, disrupted, reinvented and turned inside out by digital in just about every way imaginable, and some completely unimaginable, for sure. But in and of itself, digital isn’t the future of retail, or anything for that matter (except digital itself, I guess)
So here’s the paradox.
We want to get better at harnessing the extraordinary power and potential of digital tools and platforms to change the way we do…well, pretty much everything.
The trouble is, though, that the more we push the wondrousness of digital as if it were the “thing” (retail, government, universities, healthcare), the more we’re likely to push important influencers and participants away from a discussion that seems to have gotten means and ends a bit tangled up. The risk is that, in our eagerness to change minds and shift practice, we push digital to the front of the stage, so to speak, as if it, and its acolytes, are the stars of the show. Which, in some ways they are. But it isn’t, and they’re not.
It’s a bit confusing, especially if, like me, you’ve spent the last 15 years of your career contributing enthusiastically to the very phenomenon – in my case, in and around government and the public sector – that now is beginning to feel as if it’s becoming part of the problem rather than the important, often central part of the solution that we want others to see.
Here’s another test exactly along those lines. Compare and contrast these pairs of paragraphs:
Version 1 “If we go back to the tenets of digital government – simple, open, agile and user-centric – it’s evident that the platform approach supports all of them, Giant, monolithic, single-purpose systems don’t work. “If you want to change radically, “Bracken says, “you first need to redesign your institutional model.”
Alternative version “If we go back to the tenets of good government – simple, open, agile and user-centric – it’s evident that the platform approach supports all of them, Giant, monolithic, single-purpose systems don’t work. “If you want to change radically, “Bracken says, “you first need to redesign your institutional model.”
Or this pair:
Version 1 “Well-designed digital services require a strong connectedness between ambition and scale, experience, operational evolution and engagement platforms.”
Alternative version “Well-designed public services require a strong connectedness between ambition and scale, experience, operational evolution and engagement platforms”.
Or, finally, these two admonitions:
Version 1 “The most digitally adept governments will imagine and design the future by meshing their business goals with user-centred design and a good understanding of current technologies. They’ll deliver the future by adopting agile methods. And they’ll run the future with a culture of continuous feedback and analytics-driven insight.”
Alternative version “The most adept governments will imagine and design the future by meshing their business goals with user-centred design and a good understanding of current technologies. They’ll deliver the future by adopting agile methods. And they’ll run the future with a culture of continuous feedback and analytics-driven insight.”
They all come from the new book Delivering on Digital from one of the best in the business. It’s a predictably thorough and practical contribution to the conversation about digital transformation in government. Full of good stories, great examples from all around the world (including Australia) and plenty of practical resources, tools and ‘how to’ planning guides. It’s a timely and very readable reminder how far the digital government movement has come, and how far it still has to go.
But the more I read the book, but more it struck me that maybe we’ve reached the point, much anticipated since the earliest days of eGovernment (remember when it was seen as vert sophisticated to ask “yes, but isn’t it really just about government?), where we need to ditch the digital, or at least dial it down a little.
And not because digital has become less important or, worse, might be dying the death of a thousand fads. Quiye the opposite. We need to shift our frame because that will accelerate b the transition to invisibility. Which is when any kind of technology revolution starts to realise the transformation it promises.
The obvious point about the paragraphs I’ve quoted is that the alternative version is the same as the first, except without a specific reference to “digital”. And when you read the second, de-digitalised version, you get the idea about what might be the real significance of Bill Eggers’ book.
Doing good government well, and doing good digital government well, are now so impossible to distinguish that it is becoming less and less useful to make the distinction. And I’d go further and speculate whether our continuing efforts to valorise digital and to call out the community of digital innovators into a new heroism (or should that be anti-heroism?) risks the very separateness from mainstream, plain old “government” that erodes the full impact of the digital revolution in the first place.
I guess it’s the paradox of all revolutions. The more you emphasise the revolution, the less you focus on what the revolution is supposed to be all about. For some, that can be annoying and off-putting.
Put another way, perhaps if we spent less time putting “new” digital on a pedestal as something apart from, and better than, the “old” business of government and public work it is so completely disrupting, we might get further, faster in our real aim – which, presumably, is to get better and better at turning these new tools and instincts and platforms to the business of doing good government better.
Now, given that I’ve spent the best part of the last 15 years energetically and enthusiastically extolling the virtues of digital in all its forms, and currently chair a couple of government committees dedicated quite explicitly to new phases of digital disruption, this might sound like an odd position to take.
And I am a long standing admirer of Bill’s work over many years as one of the earliest and best of the writers, researchers and thinkers around what we now call digital government, and which (partly with his skilled and persistent input) we used to call eGovernment, networked government or government 2.0.
So my point here is not to suggest that digital is not important, or that the world of digital doesn’t need proper attention in terms of skills, tools, platforms and expertise that have to be brought to bear to do it well.
My concerns are captured in these three questions:
- The more we talk about digital government, instead of “good government, done well” with “digital” invisibly infused through its every instinct and reflex, are we at risk of perpetuating a divide between ‘real’ government and ‘digital’ government that is not only unhelpful, but actually impeding digital’s full flowering?
- Does this sense of separateness set up unhelpful contests between “bad” mainstream or traditional practice and “good” digital practice and disruption which gets in the way of the transition from one to the other?
- And finally, is there a risk that the occasionally evangelical certainty of the digital disrupters, including their legitimate criticisms of much that is clearly bad about the way governments sometimes work, betrays a wilful misunderstanding of the complexities of governing which can border on disrespect?
These are reflections that run much wider than Bill’s new book. Indeed, in my experience, because his own engagement in this space has been so deep, informed and persistent, Bill constantly treads the difficult line between respect and practical understanding on the one hand and, on the other, a true reformer’s genuine and well-informed zeal for change.
My sense is that there remain significant barriers between the discourse of digital disruption and a defensive, sometimes even hostile attitude in some quarters of the “deep Mandarin” class. And that’s not because they aren’t seized of the inescapable impact of digital on every aspect of their world. But it might be a reflection of the way in which “digital” insists on being the star when for the most part it shouldn’t be (even if it often is).
In much the same way as retail is the future of retail, the future of governing is not digital. The future of governing is governing.
That means a focus on making policy better, designing services with impact and equity, using evidence more systematically to inform practice and outcomes, attracting and retaining requisite talent, learning how to work with “crowds” of formal and informal experts and citizens, protecting and promoting the public good, fighting inequality and creating opportunity, protecting communities and making people safer, rescuing trust and legitimacy by making the way we govern more legible. And a whole lot more.
In every single dimension, for sure, digital is already a game breaker and, into the future, it will be a brilliant, unexpected and confronting game maker. But it isn’t the game.