Change is not easy | Digital changes in the public sector
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Digital change

Change is hard. This goes double for organizations which do all kinds of different things, like the government. Given society’s pressure on them to perform better, many governments are betting big on digital services. What can be done through the internet, what has to be done in person? According to the plans, at least 65% of government services should be provided through the internet. Citizens and entrepreneurs can do business with the government using the internet in many cases. At first glance, that’s not a bad result.

Plenty of challenges

Fortunately, there are still plenty of challenges left. Take window dressing, for example: clean up the outside. Give the website a restyling and the service desks a makeover, but without redesigning the internal side to ensure integration and cohesion based on what customers want. This window dressing can help in the short term, but in the long term it can be a death knell.

Pivoting the organization

There are also governments that start working on the organization’s internal aspects first. They pivot the organization and adopt a market-focused structure. There, too, we can find band-aids as solutions. The structure may be overhauled, but the root of the problem goes unaddressed. Changing the structure is a matter of copying and pasting. Culture and behavior are hard as concrete and just as hard to change. Many employees’ attitudes are completely set in stone. How can we change that?

The challenge of digitizing

The digitization of services constitutes an extra challenge. There’s friction between the functionally designed organization on the one hand and the implementation of a digital service desk on the other hand. In the latter case, a customer-focused organization with comprehensive service is required. You’ll need to work hard on a solid foundation.

Which roles are essential?

A smarter government starts by correctly designating the essence of the most important players, in the right order. Co-operation is front and center. Wanting everything at once is wanting nothing at all, as the saying goes. That’s why the following aspects should be focused on: applying the right technology, human behavior, and more specific leadership and organizational development. These four subjects, and their internal relationships, have to be described. Getting a glimpse of the many possibilities to create a more intelligent organization can give all governments a positive impulse.

Better services for citizens and businesses

The emphasis of these improvements is on substantially improving services for citizens and businesses. Consider issues like approving building permits, distributing declarations, granting benefits, charging fees, and so on. Although that last part may not be seen as a service by everyone. So we’re not just talking about services in the sense of policy, management, and enforcement. It’s the government’s job to provide excellent service without huge debacles. Making mistakes is okay, but learning from them is necessary. Learning from each other is especially essential.

Developing according to scenarios

Governmental development can go according to certain scenarios. One possible route is implementing an organization-wide mid-office on top of a profession-oriented service structure. Limited risks, not much genuine integration, but results are quickly visible to the customer, and the track is relatively easy to control. Others follow the second route: a thorough organizational change track. Ensure that employees can start thinking and acting from the customer question and pivot the organization.

Slowly reaching the goal

Slowly but surely, the organization advances, and the goal is reached with limited ICT support. The third route follows a middle path: multi-disciplinary and short-cycle. In part because of this, we gently dodge many obstacles, with long-term success without too many risks. All routes are depicted according to an ideal route, with traffic signs as guideposts, speed limits, traffic lights, and other traffic participants.

Identical but different

In ten years, it will become clear that a lot of money was wasted, with the wisdom and insights of the day. Much of the service on a municipal level is identical. Yet every municipality can determine how to design their services and build their own systems. This is somewhat odd if you compare it to, say, a bank: surely all establishments of the same bank use the same systems and website. “The situation where every municipality is reinventing the wheel is unacceptable,” says Herman Geerdink, municipal secretary of Almelo.

Lines in the sand

There’s a reason why municipalities have the room to make their own decisions. But that autonomy draws lines in the sand where there should be none. Firstly, on a local level, intensive co-operation will have to be established. Especially when it comes to sharing ICT resources and designing the mid and front-offices. Secondly, one can imagine that municipalities will gradually lose some of their autonomy. At any rate, in this context we can be glad that the number of Dutch municipalities was reduced from 600 to around 390 in 2016.

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