Onwards to a digital government!

Onwards to a digital government!

Digital transformation: an end-to-end business transformation in which digital technologies play an important role. It seems inescapable, even for the government. But what shape will a digitally transformed government take? What is the current status? And what is needed to achieve a digitally transformed government? Lieselot Danneels’ PhD fills some of the gaps in the literature, and provides governments with some pointers.

Paradigm shift

The management philosophy of New Public Management (NPM) came into vogue in the 1980s. NPM propagated the idea that government could be modernised and professionalised by embracing concepts from the business world, such as performance, competition and incentives. However, NPM failed to live up to the high expectations, and also had negative consequences: silo formation and a focus on internal processes rather than on the changing society. “And there’s the rub,” says Lieselot. “We need a paradigm shift: government silos have to be integrated around citizens’ needs once again, and digital technologies are now an essential part of this. But digitisation alone is not enough, the government needs to switch to new service models. All these principles come together in the concept of Digital Era Governance (DEG).”

Two research questions

How can the government shift from NPM to DEG? Lieselot studied this issue on the basis of two research questions: “Firstly, what exactly does DEG mean? So far, we have known it mainly as a vision, but there are very few practical examples to be found. And secondly, what are the implications of such a shift from NPM to DEG?’

Open data platforms under scrutiny

For a better understanding of DEG, Lieselot focuses on open government data (OGD) platforms, traditionally viewed as essential for digitally transformed government. The literature deals mainly with the purely technical aspects, and also lacks a usable typology. Lieselot’s new definition emphasises rules that set the availability and reuse of data on the right lines. By applying theoretical concepts of knowledge management and development, she has identified three types of platform which differ according to the interaction between data and users, and the role of the government:

  • Cognitivistic
    The platform simply makes data available, and offers one-way traffic with individual users. Reuse of data is not encouraged. The role of the government is limited to opening up the data.
  • Connectionistic
    Data is made available with the explicit intention of third parties using it to develop new applications together, independently of the platform. The government’s role is that of initiator, and involves bringing different parties together, by means such as hackathons or living labs, and stimulating value creation.
  • Autopoietic
    This type of platform is a true ecosystem. The reuse of data by the various actors benefits the platform itself. Actors in the ecosystem organise themselves around a learning platform. The government acts as a facilitator, or orchestrator.

“You could see the three types as successive stages of development,” stresses Lieselot.  “However, the choice of a particular type should be carefully considered, taking account of available resources and the intended purpose. Unfortunately, all too often we hear people saying they want to go for a true ecosystem, but then all the government does is open up some data.”

A simple rules strategy

Let’s consider the strategic implications of a shift to DEG. Working with the VDAB public employment service, as an example of a government organisation, and based on action design research (ADR) techniques, Lieselot explored how a simple rules strategy can be devised in a DEG context. “In ICT, you use ADR to develop tools or code together with developers and users. It was about a strategic way of working. For ADR, it’s essential that you develop the tool, the code, or in this case the strategy, in the context in which it will be used.”

The outcome of this exercise? Six simple but ground-breaking rules that kick-started the strategic transformation of the VDAB. General guidelines for developing simple rules were also drawn up. As a result, these six rules – provided they are fine-tuned – can also be used for other government organisations .

Open digital co-creation: what will it mean?

The challenges of an increasingly digitalised and connected world are too great for individual organisations – in both the public and the private sector. Partnership is the message. And whereas co-creation was previously limited to a one-to-one partnership between an organisation and its customers or suppliers, today there are truly open networks of partners. Lastly, digital technologies facilitate these new forms of collaboration and innovation. However, little is known about the skills that the parties involved need to make a success of this open digital co-creation.

An example of successful open digital co-creation is the portfolio of open services developed by the VDAB in recent years. What began with opening up the VDAB platform for vacancies from external HR service providers has grown to encompass eight different services developed with, and used by, more than 20 partners. Examples include the online assistant that automatically checks vacancies for omissions or inconsistencies, and a matching service that compares vacancies and CVs to find suitable candidates. 

“The VDAB case combines aspects of co-creation, open innovation and technological platforms, aspects that recur in different strands in the relevant literature. In semi-structured interviews with the parties involved, we first investigated which skills are important in practice,” explains Lieselot. “We then explored how these skills can be linked to the different themes or perspectives described in the literature, and these can be broadly grouped into three main themes: openness, ecosystem thinking and ICT governance.”

The following skills proved important for the VDAB:

  • Openness
    “As a government organisation you need to learn to think outside-in, starting from the needs of external parties, in the same way as a consultant,” says Lieselot. “In addition, the platform architecture also imposes crucial requirements. For example, services are best developed as separate components, so that everyone uses only what they need. And the openness of the platform also needs to be dynamically adjustable. Currently, the VDAB is taking the lead, but in the long term the partners should be given greater responsibility for service development.”
  • Ecosystem thinking
    “It’s no longer about convincing the CEO and the CIO – instead, ecosystem thinking needs to be embodied throughout the organisation, even in teams that are not involved in open services. This is important in avoiding internal conflicts. After all, some teams are concerned that these open services are undermining the VDAB’s activities.”
  • ICT governance
    “As an organisation, it is important to strike the right balance between informal and formal mechanisms in order to regulate access to, and use of, these open services: parties need to have confidence in the relationship, and you also need to think about which services are chargeable and which are free.” Lieselot continues: “But you also need to find a healthy balance between creativity and standardisation, so you have plenty of scope for experimentation, while continuing to professionalise the services.”

“The VDAB’s partners in turn need to understand how these open services fit in with their own business models, and to contribute actively to improving and developing these services. It’s also crucial that they too should put ecosystem thinking first. After all, they will be expected to collaborate with potential competitors,” concludes Lieselot.

This research makes an interesting contribution to the literature, as it is the first time that co-creation in a network of different parties, from both the public and the private sector, has come under scrutiny. But equally important is its practical relevance: “This case study shows that open digital co-creation involves more than just technical skills, and provides public sector managers with inspiration and guidance to set up similar partnerships themselves.”

Current status

The question also arises as to how far governments are advanced in their transition from NPM to DEG. Because DEG is a relatively new concept, no figures are currently available on its practical application. However, a more general survey on digital maturity published in 2015 showed that governments are at different stages in their digital transformation, and that only a minority are already well-advanced.

“I myself carried out another survey of European public employment services, in which the VDAB came out as one of the front-runners. Admittedly, public employment services may not be representative of government per se, but the result does confirm that the VDAB is an interesting case that other government organisations can learn from.”

To be continued

Finally, Lieselot adds a number of caveats regarding her PhD, and looks to the future: “In my research, it became clear that the literature on DEG has so far focused mainly on the ‘what’ rather than the ‘how’. In this PhD, I have taken the first steps towards a broader focus. However, the question of what exactly DEG means, and what it involves, has not yet been fully answered, so I am also planning some post-doctoral research.”

Source: “The way towards digital era governance” by Lieselot Danneels. PhD in Applied Economics at KU Leuven in 2017. Doctoral supervisor: Professor Stijn Viaene (KU Leuven and Vlerick Business School).

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