Digital transformation of a governmental agency: a simple rules strategy

How do you launch a digital transformation programme in a not so obvious environment? Government agencies are often depicted as traditional, even conservative organisations and laggards in the adoption of innovative technologies. Nonetheless VDAB staff, in collaboration with Vlerick Business School and KU Leuven experts, started a digital transformation journey in the context of VDAB’s digital lab, and as they advanced,  learned how to transform, making use of a simple rules strategy. Vlerick’s Lieselot Danneels and Stijn Viaene applied action design research (ADR) techniques to uncover digital transformation practices that work.

Public management theorists have advocated a mind-set shift for government from the New Public Management (NPM) paradigm to Digital Era Governance (DEG), implying a highly digitised service environment, that applies the most modern of digital technologies to achieve its goals. For VDAB this means going from ‘digital support’ to ‘digital first’ to match job seeking candidates with potential employers that offer jobs. Today, VDAB is still learning, but it has achieved a pioneer-status for its digital transformation efforts among its peers in Europe (public employment services) and locally among governmental agencies of all sorts. A set of simple, yet boundary-breaking rules helped to get the transformation going.

  • From digital support to digital first:
    VDAB has to be able to deliver personalised services in a flexible and proactive manner. This means that digital needs to become the reference for new service concepts instead of an afterthought or a support function.
  • From service provision strategy to ecosystem strategy:
    Instead of providing services in a closed supplier-customer business model, VDAB aspires to become a labour market orchestrator or keystone in an open ecosystem. This represents a huge shift in strategic focus and value proposition. Most importantly, VDAB will have to learn how to delegate service provision to ecosystem parties, and will have to make sure that these ecosystem parties can thrive.
  • From offering services to coordinating dynamic service journeys:
    VDAB’s new role implies a shift from providing job security to unemployed candidates to providing and enabling support for a wide variety of labour market services for both the demand and the supply side all along the career lifecycle. Employer servicing and partnerships have to be included. From the customer’s point of view, the focus on job security is extended to career security.
  • From ‘have to’ to ‘want to’ partner involvement:
    VDAB’s broader target audience, i.e. from non-active citizens and job-seekers to including working citizens, employers and labour market actors who do not necessarily need to work with VDAB, comes with the need for developing a business model rooted in ‘want to’ rather than ‘have to’ engagement with external ecosystem parties.
  • From plan-driven to agile projects:
    VDAB decided to enter a new space of serving and supporting the labour market defined by serious heterogeneity of parties; unknown, diverse and evolving customer needs; and novel, continuously evolving digital technologies. Projects or programs operating in such a dynamic, complex environment would require adopting an agile way of managing project work.
  • From ‘ad hoc’ initiatives to developing organizational capabilities:
    Instead of focusing only on the delivery of separate digital innovation projects, VDAB wants to develop organizational capabilities in support of all previous boundary breaking principles, step by step, and project by project. Developing this set of organisational capabilities requires a commitment to double-loop learning across initiatives.

So what can you learn from this story? Although developed by and for VDAB, we believe these rules could be applicable in other contexts as well. However it would be unwise to just copy-paste them. When developing a strategy of simple rules yourself, check them against these guiding principles:

  • Make the rules specific, differentiating and future-oriented by linking to both an agreed upon view of the future and the current state of affairs, with the difference between the two representing a fundamental shift.
  • Make the simple rules transparent by employing familiar wording and by utilizing colours for easy referral.
  • Make the simple rules actionable by tracking project progress (“how different are we really?”) by how well you score on the fundamental shift inherent to the simple rules.

Applying these learning points and the simple rules strategy will help you to kick-start digital transformation.

Source: The full case study article ‘Simple rules strategy to transform government: An ADR approach.’ was published in Government Information Quarterly;  Danneels, L. and Viaene, S. (2015).

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