The public sector: the natural home for vested digital leadership

Today, the government is playing a central role in the battle to rein in a health crisis on the one hand, and to compensate for its economic impact on the other. The crisis is acting as a catalyst on top of the evolution that the sector is going through, a transformation that should serve to make the respective organisations in the sector proactive, agile machines in which new digital and organisational models play a key role. In the midst of this transformation, the need for vested digital leadership is greater than ever.

LoQutus and Vlerick Business School have joined forces to explore the way in which the public sector is experiencing the changes, how it is tackling them, and where the main obstacles lie. This article summarises the initial insights from a round of interviews with key figures in the government’s digital transformation.

What is vested digital leadership?

Digital leadership is the ingredient that raises up the transformation from the innovative small-scale to the innovative large-scale. The government has no shortage of innovative instincts, although there is always room for improvement, the discussion partners believe. But there is a dearth of leaders in the sector who take this innovative approach beyond the merely experimental, or beyond a single project, and also transform entire organisations and exploit the power of new digital technologies.

The responsibilities of vested leadership can be summarised as follows:

  • Encouraging the adoption of digital technologies in the government by means of co-creation with citizens and/or partners. 
  • Positioning oneself as an architect who exploits and supports digital opportunities with a flexible Enterprise Architecture. 
  • Actively seeking to reuse new and existing digital and organisational building blocks. 
  • Organising the exchange of digital assets both within and outside the public sector. 
  • Safeguarding and allocating resources to speed up digital transformation on a large scale. 
  • Applying the principles of the agile organisation.

And that is precisely what the government needs to gauge its position as governor in society, because that is the objective.

What is the challenge exactly?

The unique thing about the government is that it needs to think and act inclusively. Even if digital is the most efficient solution, other channels must stay open for those who cannot or do not wish to turn to digital channels. This means that it is not always possible to focus all the energy that is needed on digital transformation, and that internal and external resistance threatens to put a spanner in the works when introducing new ways of working and technologies.

The public sector also has a reputation, both for a lack of innovation and for a limited desire to collaborate between departments. Indeed, we heard that not all individuals or services are equally easy to involve in innovative collaborations. But in fact, this was not confirmed by everyone in the interviews. There is a recognition of the difficulty of keeping all partners on board, but putting together a coalition to engage in cross-organisational innovation is usually no problem. After all, the public sector is a large and highly diverse sector with varying digital maturity and different degrees of digital leadership.

Finally, in many circumstances vested digital leadership is the sticking point for digital transformation, also outside the government. It is the least sexy aspect of innovation. It is not about experimentation, providing inspiration or flashy buzzwords, but about complex material such as architecture, internal mobility, scalability and portfolio management.

What is the role of an ecosystemic approach?

The coronavirus crisis has highlighted that no organisation is strong enough to weather every storm by itself, and that doing things together is often better than going it alone. In short, that is also the raison d’être for the growing importance of ecosystemic thinking. This is a crucial concept for vested digital leadership. The interview results fully support this thesis. Every key player cites ecosystemic thinking as a prerequisite for successful digital transformation. It also goes without saying that citizens expect the same level of service provision in the different government agencies they come into contact with. And it is clearly unacceptable for those citizens to fall victim to inadequate internal communication between government agencies, and between the government and peripheral service providers. The government sector is therefore increasingly focusing on activating the wide array of players who are active in the ecosystem.

What are the known success factors?

If, as previously described, the ambition is to take on a governing role, an ecosystem that actively deploys digital technology and exchanges it for a better service provision for citizens, what are the success factors for vested leadership in this context? The following elements emerged from the interviews:

  • Firmly grasp opportunities such as a crisis, a new governance statement, a necessary renewal of an out-of-date system, a request for collaboration, etc. as an opportunity to introduce both ecosystemic thinking and digital transformation. However, be sure to be clear about your intentions when you do this. 
  • Win the trust of the key stakeholders by being consistent in the message that you are conveying and turn this rhetoric into reality. In other words, there is no place for hidden agendas; instead there should be clear goals that you emphatically follow up an deliver upon. 
  • A good architecture is a weapon in the battle to offer scalable solutions, and has to be capable of linking other parties in the future. You can never add this in retrospect, so it is essential to set it out in this way. 
  • When taking on a governing role, you must look ahead with two different hats on. For example, it is not easy to have a government that is at once customer, client and inspector. Ensure that there are robust agreements in place in terms of the roles to be played, and erect Chinese walls where necessary. 
  • Political will is always a factor that can make all the difference in the public sector. Harness the momentum if it is there. 
  • To stimulate ecosystemic thinking, for services and people one can set explicit objectives in terms of collaboration and partnerships. 
  • Digitisation and organisational transformation must go hand in hand. Introducing new technologies must be unequivocally linked to rethinking processes and structures. 
  • Do not be satisfied with a Proof of Concept solution, but opt for roll-out on a larger scale from the start. 
  • In an ecosystem, there are always parties who do not want to participate. Begin with an outstretched hand to everyone, but do not wait for parties who do not want to join in. Too many partners often make a project too cumbersome, and secondly, the stragglers often change their minds later once you have achieved success. It is often the case that less is more.

Want to read more? The book ‘Digital Transformation Know How’ by Professor Stijn Viaene addresses the topic of ‘Vested Leadership’.

On 15 October 2020, Vlerick Business School and Prime Foundation Partner LoQutus (AXI group) are organising an open workshop for digital leaders in the public sector. More info and registration.

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