In June of last year, I returned to my roots. After eight years in Toronto, consulting for private sector companies, I moved back to Ottawa and the public sector. As I re-acquaint myself with colleagues, clients and federal government priorities, I am struck by the unique headwinds my public sector clients face.
It takes a spark to ignite innovation but so much more to keep it burning. That’s certainly the case with Canada’s public sector. There’s no shortage of strong intentions and good ideas when it comes to innovation, but what’s often lacking is the capability, capacity and risk tolerance to foster and sustain it.
Innovating within the machinery of government has its unique challenges, but it’s far from impossible. Raising the digital IQ of public servants can drive innovations that better align with citizen expectations. But as our public sector leaders talk about agile adoption and a digital workforce, they can’t stop there.
Innovating in a risk averse culture
In other industries, the notion of “fail fast, learn fast” is lauded and applauded. But failing in a public environment can be just that: very, very public.
Our recent Digital IQ report identified a clear “say-do” gap between what executives in Canada say about skills gaps and what they are actually doing to close those gaps. On the one hand, 27 per cent of Canadian executives say the lack of suitably skilled teams is the top barrier to success in digital initiatives. On the other hand, they aren’t investing to upskill their teams, believing instead that they can hire their way out of the skills gap or that the educational pipeline will fill it in. Their global counterparts, by contrast, are more inclined to upskill existing talent, according to the 22nd annual CEO Survey.
These gaps, which are evident in the public sector as well, are only a few of the challenges facing senior managers in government in a time of digital disruption.
The war for talent and skills, for example, is intense.
Most private sector digital products and service offerings are designed, executed and refreshed to meet and exceed the increasingly high demands of customers who expect to have outstanding experiences every time, on every channel. Success relies on highly skilled and well compensated talent, to produce these top shelf products and services.
Governments now compete in the same talent pool as cool high tech firms, socially-driven NGOs and innovative start ups. Yet they do so in the face of some considerable headwinds. The timings of political calendars often shape the timing and pace of government initiatives. Likewise, the flexibility of public sector senior managers to initiate change can be affected by the realities of working within unionized workforces. And don’t get me started on regimented procurement and funding processes!
So if the pace of change in public sector is stymied by burdensome machinery of government and a risk averse culture, what does that mean for innovation?
Improving the citizen experience through employee experience
In my view, public sector innovation can be found at the intersection of the citizen experience and employee experience. Giving the latter the right digital tools improves the former.
This takes time, resources, and highly visible initiatives that drive change. PwC recently worked with a large public sector organization to articulate their workplace of the future, where employees work anywhere, anytime, and within any department with a common way of working. We explored the use of emerging technologies like wearables, key culture drivers like diversity and accessibility and alternative service delivery models like co-location of public and private enterprise. The project was experience-led and user-focused, because changing minds and behaviours can be even more important than changing tooling and furniture.
Further insights from our Digital IQ report underscore this skills-experience correlation. It reveals that Canadian executives struggle to connect the dots between customer experience (CX) and ROI, and even more so with employee experience (EX). Taking CX as a reasonable proxy for citizen experience, I can see how citizens are sometimes frustrated in trying to access and use government services when front line staff, who want to help are not adequately trained, equipped or empowered to use digital tools. Yet once they are properly trained, equipped and empowered, these public sector employees are more effective in problem solving on behalf of the citizens they are helping.
AI in the government
If data is the new oil, governments across Canada are sitting on massive amounts of this digital resource. Focused applications of artificial intelligence (AI) can help reveal insights from deep data pools in ways that are better, faster and cheaper than ever before. Machine learning-based AI algorithms similar to recommender systems on Amazon, for instance, can enhance citizen experiences when it comes to interacting with their governments online.
Likewise, the public sector can deploy applications such as chatbots and virtual agents to expeditiously answer a variety of frequently asked questions. AI can also enhance fraud detection, accelerate processing and triage backlogs, improve process automation efficiency as well as streamline text mining and insight generation.
We’re seeing significant government interest in AI-related projects, both in prototypes and (predominantly back office) capabilities deployed into production. One example is in the regulatory space, where the use of natural language processing (NLP) techniques are helping to deliver insights and correlations among regulations, making it consumable and used as input for various process improvements. Another example is in cognitive automation, where AI technologies are helping to extend robotic process automation capabilities and make automation a continuously evolving method.
These are clear signs of increased public sector innovation.
We’re all stakeholders in government innovation
For innovation to flourish, we as citizens need to be active participants on this digital journey, articulating our ideas and needs through public consultations, challenging the “same old same old”. And as taxpayers and voters, we need to allow our governments a bit of room to fail fast and learn fast, in a contained way—the same leeway we grant private sector companies that are trying to disrupt before they’re disrupted.
No one wants another troubled digital project, but equally, no one wants another paper form either.
Change isn’t easy, especially in a public sector environment, where it can be even harder. I have a lot of empathy for my clients who are change agents and I’m committed to helping them.