Digital leadership, diversity and imagination for public sector transformation

By Lisa Carson, Maria Katsonis & Kelly Grigsby. Introduction by Melbourne School of Government Lecturer in Digital Government Timothy Kariotis.

A group of people talk in a workplace

The public sector is undergoing a rapid digital transformation and has been for many decades. Since the internet boomed onto the scene, governments worldwide have had big ideas for a new digitally connected public service, economy, and society. The adoption of digital technologies in the back-end of government has enabled new opportunities for integrated policy and service provision. The adoption of technologies in the front end of government has transformed the relationship between citizens and the public sector.

As governments try to keep pace with the private sector, there is an increasing recognition that the public sector has a unique digital transformation path to chart and cannot blindly follow the private sector. One example of this uniqueness is the need for public sector products and services to be accessible to everyone in the community. Driving transformational digital change in the public sector will require leadership, diversity, and imagination to ensure we bring everyone along on this journey. Lisa, Maria, and Kelly provide three compelling narratives on the necessary capabilities and skills required to enable digital transformation in the public sector.

Why genuine diversity matters — insights from Dr Lisa Carson, Lecturer in Public Leadership & Diversity, Melbourne School of Government

Genuine diversity is fundamental to government practice now and into the future. Diversity cuts across APS values and Employment Principles, most notably that the APS ‘recognizes the diversity of Australian community and fosters diversity in the workplace’ and ‘provides workplaces that are free from discrimination, patronage and favouritism’. Recent research has found that as workplace diversity increases, inclusive leadership practices positively influence organizational justice, something that our public institutions not only need to be seen to deliver but also realise in practice.

According to the latest APS ‘State of the Service 2020-21’ report- 3.5% of APS employees identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, 4.1% have a (dis)ability, 22.3% were born overseas, 14.7% were born in a non-English speaking country, 7% identify as LGBTIQA+ and women make up around 60.2% of the workforce. Yet we know that much of the work on representative bureaucracy embraces whiteness and masculinity, to the detriment of people of colour and women, often perceived as ‘other’. The extent to which this has informed the policies and practices of our institutions cannot be under-estimated. Here in Australia, the APS and our elected leadership need to be structured, and arguably transformed to be able to better govern in the interests of all Australians. One significant area for change is recognising and adopting ‘Indigenous values for the APS’ which was recommended in the 2019 Independent Review of the APS.

When it comes to digital transformation, huge opportunity and potential abound as do the risks for perpetuating inequity that need to be understood and overcome. For instance, when it comes to users of digital platforms, half of the world’s population don’t have access to the internet and there’s a disproportionate impact on women and girls (known as the ‘gender digital divide’) and those living in rural areas compared to urban, making low internet access a continuing driver of inequity. Here in Australia, as Wilson & Barraket highlight, more than 2.5 million people aren’t online, and although this number has fallen over time, the increasing central role that the internet plays in the functioning of society, has deepened the disadvantages of being offline.

Digital transformation in policy — insights from Maria Katsonis, Public Policy Fellow, Melbourne School of Government

The purpose of digital technologies is to create public value in the design and delivery of public policy and services. It is not about building websites or online channels. Digital tools are an enabler of public outcomes. For example, they can provide the platform for harnessing the power of data to enable robust decision making in policy. Today’s complex and pressing public problems are not contained by the traditional boundaries separating government agencies. Data sharing and digital platforms can span these boundaries, facilitating collaboration and collective problem solving.

The digital sphere also provides opportunities for inclusive engagement with citizens. This extends beyond online consultation processes and simply asking the community about their views. It means designing policies and programs with people at the centre and asking how citizens want their services and programs delivered. This focus on digital by default and citizen centred design aligns expectations and needs with tailored services. At the same time, there can be challenges with digital access and a need to bridge the digital divide if there are issues of affordability and community capability.

For today’s public manager, a newer skill set is emerging to navigate today’s digital landscape. Developing capabilities in human centred design, data analytics, collaboration and agile project management are becoming as essential as the core skills of strategic thinking and problem solving. Digital can no longer simply be relegated to the digital team. It is a core capability for everyone.

Digital transformation in public sector practice — insights from Kelly Grigsby, Chief Executive Officer at City of Hobart

As well as adapting current programs and policy offerings in a digital environment to create efficiencies, evolving technology that is matched with imagination and foresight allows for the creation of as yet unimagined public service offerings.

In a digital city, the digital twin allows a film crew in London to scout for locations in Hobart and to predict light and weather patterns to assist with their scheduling. Inspections of existing solar installations can occur without putting anyone on a roof, and the potential PV yield from any roof can be quickly determined.

Digital transformation requires a workforce that understands the immense value of data. Sophisticated procurement teams must write contracts ensuring data collected is kept in public hands and available to the public sector manager as a real time data stream. This needs to be matched with digitally literate program design. A mature digital operator doesn’t ask providers for yet another dashboard. Rather its own software integration team uses APIs to bring data directly into its data lake so that it is integrated with every other city function. As a learning organisation, it is able to quickly respond to the feedback from that data. For example, a fully integrated parking system brings revenue, and gives occupancy and income data for every metre of kerb space—a proxy for congestion and economic activity, and a predictor for the effect of a new parklet or bike lane.

The challenge for the public sector is to find and retain people with imagination, technical skills, and passion to put the immense power of data and new technologies to work in the service of the public.

The public sector must embrace agile processes, take risks on new ways of proceeding, and understand that digital transformation will happen without it, increasingly leaving governance in the hands of corporations who have long understood the value of public data, and determined ways to own it.

These ideas and more will be explored at the inaugural ‘Digital Government Festival’ held virtually by Melbourne School of Government on 1-2 June 2022 featuring 11 keynotes and more than 25 sessions. The online Digital Government Festival is free of charge to attend.

Registrations are now open.