Governments across the world are feeling an unprecedented squeeze. On the one side, citizens are demanding greater transparency and convenience, while on the other, global disruptions in the environment, the economy and the geopolitical arena have made it even harder to serve citizen needs smoothly and efficiently.
Managing the state of the future will, then, be an exercise in being able to finely balance the parameters of efficiency and accountability against rapidly changing mandates as technology and citizen expectations mature.
A lot of this ability to balance will depend on how thoughtfully and thoroughly resilience is built into its system such that crises cause minimal damage, on how sound its fiscal, social and environmental policies are, and how it best manages to leverage the pool of talent within its citizenry. What are some of the best ways to do this, and how can a well-run government run even better?
Running Government Better
The Centre for Technology in Government (CTG), University at Albany, State University of New York, US, aims to find out exactly that. Its aim is “to foster public sector innovation, enhance capability, generate public value, and support good governance,” and its Deputy Director, Dr Anthony Cresswell, firmly believes that governments are responsible for some of the best - but also some of the worst - aspects of their citizens’ lives.
The CTG framework identifies six value types expressed in terms of the impact government IT can have on the interests of public stakeholders:
Financial – impacts on current or anticipated income, asset values, liabilities, entitlements, and other aspects of wealth or risks to any of the above.
Political – impacts on personal or corporate influence on government actions or policy, role in political affairs, or influence in political parties or prospects for current or future public office.
Social – impacts on family or community relationships, social mobility, status, and identity.
Strategic – impacts on economic or political advantage or opportunities, goals, resources for innovation or planning.
Ideological – impacts on beliefs, moral or ethical commitments, alignment of government actions or policies or social outcomes with beliefs, or moral or ethical positions.
Stewardship – impacts on the public’s view of government officials as faithful stewards or guardians.
“Knowledge is king, more so in this age of social media and mobility, where the Internet lives in one’s pocket. A government needs to be in the know. Ignorance can make a government, very quickly, irrelevant,” remarks Adaire Fox - Martin, Senior Vice President, Industry Business Solutions, Asia Pacific Japan at SAP.
The United States has consistently ranked among the top three in several independent e-government studies recently, and in Waseda University’s rankings released in 2011, it came a close second behind Singapore. Two years ago, however, it ranked first, and the two countries have been - along with Sweden and Korea - battling for the top rank on the e-government list.
Dr Cresswell suggests that while the best US states and large parts of the Federal government are well prepared for the future, the excellence in e-government is not consistent across all aspects of the US public sector and that Singapore is a better example of national planning and investment. In Singapore, “the government agencies continue to seek improvements,” he opines. He also gives the example of Korea, which has “made great investments in infrastructure and access for the public and are moving forward with improvements in the operations of government.” In Korea, government agencies develop applications for internal use and for export, producing revenue and saving other governments the development costs.
The Evolution of Local Government
Birmingham City Council (BCC), the largest local authority area in the United Kingdom, has an annual budget of £2.7 billion and one million customers. In 2007, it implemented a ten-year, £475 million IT transformation programme.
At the helm was Glyn Evans, appointed in 2003, as Director of Business Solutions & IT with BCC, with the remit to drive forward a business transformation programme across the Council.
He eventually took on the role of Director of Transformation to ensure business transformation is adopted, embedded and implemented across the Council.
The transformation programmes included the following principles:
• Customer First (improve service delivery)
• Efficiency (improve back office efficiency)
• Excellence in People Management (improve staff management)
• Working for the Future (make best use of property and assets)
• Information Management
• Housing & Environment
• Adult & Childrens Social Services
Three corporate targets were set: the council wanted to be in the ranks of top 10 per cent of local governments in the UK in terms of performance, top 15 per cent in the area of productivity and top 10 per cent when it came to staff satisfaction.
“What matters is that the goals have to be consistent and measurable,” he elaborates. “You always need clear targets for everything you do such that the people know what they are trying to achieve.” With some flexibility, the targets were built into full business cases. A joint venture, called “Service Birmingham”, was established by BCC and Capita, an outsourcing firm in the UK. The joint venture, of which the BCC owns 30 per cent, is a shared service capability using comprehensive platform and support from SAP, in the areas of back office finance, procurement, HR & payroll, front office call centre, IT systems, and several other integrated administrative operations.
According to Fox-Martin, a key achievement for BCC centred around the fact that Corporate Services Transformation (CST) was successfully implemented. It involved a change to a shared service delivery model and using SAP’s software suite to support the integration of the council’s financial, procurement, and operational performance management processes.
CST is on track to achieve £860 million in benefits over 10 years, of which £518 million will be cashable.
A Shock-proof and Resilient Public Sector
“Resilience does not depend on complete knowledge or being able to accurately anticipate all disasters or disruptions. The trick is not to avoid all surprises, which is impossible, but to expect to be surprised and to prepare for rapid adaptation to the unexpected. Adaptive management and governance appear to be crucial,” argues Dr Cresswell.
He gives the example of New York City’s response to the 9-11 attacks on New York City. The government needed much IT equipment to set up a new emergency management centre from scratch when the previous one was destroyed in the attack. The City government asked vendors to provide large amounts of new equipment, and they did, without formal tendering or normal procurement processes.
This stands in direct contrast to the response of Haiti during the 2010 earthquake. The public sector - already groaning under the strain of every-day operations - completely broke down, and without aid from neighbouring countries and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), the death toll would have far exceeded the actual numbers. Immediately after the earthquake, several NGOs and private companies involved in mapping, telecommunications and some specialised in relief efforts shared and opened up data that they had collected, when the government proved inadequate in its response.
“Governance adapted to the needs of the moment. Disaster training and preparedness should involve as much attention to creating new ways to respond as to practicing and reinforcing existing methods,” Dr Cresswell comments. Fox-Martin agrees, with the observation that there are times when real-time information is difficult to procure. She notes that in such instances, agencies can only depend on historical data, and predictive analytics can thus become central to any effort in building resilience. According to Dr Cresswell, one way of being prepared is for the government to preemptively build a connection with the innovative aspects of its population, so that IT development for the government is no longer confined within its budgetary and geographical boundaries.
“The UK’s Directgov | Innovate is a programme encouraging creation of apps to link to or enhance government services. The same thing has been tried in the US cities and Australia has created an toolkit to assist public servants and agencies innovate,” he explains.
Sustainability and Long-Term Planning
Dr Cresswell lists four issues that he believes will become increasingly important for governments to consider in the future:
Balancing control of information and technology with individual rights and privacy. The events of the “Arab Spring” and in London’s riots show how important grass roots information flows can be for mobilising actions. Every government needs to balance democratic values and civil rights against needs for security and social order. Is it good to have or use an “Internet kill switch”? These issues will only grow as technology continues to evolve.
“Big data”. New methods and capacities are presenting potentially powerful tools for processing and analysing very large data flows and data stores. The potential to monitor and assess massive financial transactions, such as in the stock market, in real time, will give new powers. Potential for increased controls and efficiency in operations will grow exponentially, as will possible invasions of privacy - and with them, opportunities for repressive actions.
Cybercrime and cyberwarfare. The risks and potential catastrophic disruptions resulting from cyber attacks will only get worse and the incentives for such hostile acts are not likely to diminish. The future state will need much better defences—in the form of state-based governance and legal systems—and much improved multinational collaboration mechanisms for protection and response.
Technology dependence. As governments become more and more dependent on IT, they become more and more dependent on the IT industry. That industry has many very large and powerful players— with attendant threats to government sovereignty or constraints on action (for example Google’s fight with the Chinese government). What’s good for a private company may not always be good for any particular country.
In 2008, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak proclaimed Low Carbon, Green Growth as Korea’s new national vision. In a move to bring “the green revolution into everyday life,” Korea is betting on not only improving the life of its citizens through making the country a better environment to live in, but also creating jobs, fueling technological innovation, and saving money in healthcare costs. This year, the country invested US$7.18 billion in the creation of a “smart grid”, as an effort to curb Carbon Dioxide emissions and improve the efficiency of its electricity market. This is in addition to a US$10 billion investment in Green-IT related projects spread out over five years, set up in 2009.
Dr Cresswell affirms that “lack of attention to sustainability is an extremely short-sighted policy position. Not only is it important for governments to improve their own performance with respect to sustainability, it is important form them to lead innovation and public opinion in their countries. Governments should be models of efficiency and environmental stewardship, and can be with enlightened leadership.”
Inclusiveness: Rallying the Citizenry
On the 17th of September, nearly 2,000 protesters gathered on Wall Street in New York in a gathering called “Occupy Wall Street”- an effort to protest the domination of the banking industry on the politics of and the governmental policies in America. It is the very first such organised mass protest to have arisen directly out of social media connections and information dissemination: it has no leader, no central propelling cause, and no definite planned outcome. It was inspired by the “Arab Spring” revolutions earlier in the year, in which Twitter, the social media networking framework, played a major role.
As the inner workings of the state are slowly stripped of their opacity, governments that do not respond to calls for greater transparency may not only become obsolete, but also lose their power to rule; transparency in government has, with wikileaks and social media being ubiquitous, become a political issue.
How best, then, can governments ride the wave of social grass-roots organisation that seems impossible to resist?
“Greater openness in government is a trend that will only grow in importance, short of some global catastrophe,” remarks Dr Cresswell. “Governments that resist, at least in the developed or middle range of wealthy countries, will not survive.”
“In the wealthier countries, more openness will not necessarily lead to greater efficiencies in the short run, since it can have a disruptive effect on business-as-usual and requires investment to implement. But I believe that in the longer run increased openness allows governance and decision making to improve in important ways.”
As a leader within the Birmingham City Council, Evans believes in evolving rules of engagement as traditional roles and dependencies catch up with the times.
“Every month I go out and spend half a day with front-line staff allowing them to challenge me - I encourage that. I might have twenty people in one of those sessions. It is not the point of covering all the issue people are raising—people can see others are asking questions they would ask. This is a two way process. I meet the trade unions once a month to talk through transformation. They agree with the objective but not necessarily with every single detail,” he recounts.
“People often talk about government having different objectives, called public outcomes, rather than achieving efficiency and cost savings,” comments Evans. “But they don’t contradict each other – the more efficient you are, the easier you can achieve those public outcomes.”
A Vision of the Future
“I would argue that almost everything that a Government does results in outcomes that influence its economic and social health,” says Fox-Martin. “Take a healthcare campaign; a healthy society drives a productive nation. And productivity is the foundation of GDP. From rural development to healthcare; education to the aging society; and public security to public administration – there are abundant opportunities for Governments to unlock public value everywhere.”
On this future state, Dr Cresswell remains firmly optimistic about open governments being able “to improve themselves and to improve the lives of citizens, even when the opposite seems to dominate the news.” He quotes Martin Luther King Jr, who declared in one of his prophetic speeches that the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.
“We should be working to ensure the future state follows that arc. But to do it we must bring fresh eyes and ideas,” Dr Cresswell says.