While we can argue that a digital government is very much wanted, academic and industry research shows that the public sector lags behind the private sector in adoption of new technology.
With many underlying factors affecting this gap, management of technological change has been proven to be a major issue. A joint study by McKinsey and Oxford University found that large-scale public sector IT projects were six times more likely to run over budget, and 20% more likely to run over schedule than equivalent projects in the private sector.
In the public sector, reaching consensus in decision-making is more difficult given multiple agencies with differing systems and requirements. The study suggests that despite plenty of technical options nowadays, operational management and decision-making is still an obstacle.
However, the demand for digital public services has never been greater. In the UK, 59% of individuals already use online platforms to interact with their government, indicating high demand for e-citizen services. Furthermore, a substantial proportion – 42% – of UK citizens would be willing to try new digital services, indicating a welcome attitude towards further digitalisation. With COVID-19 bringing more requirement for citizen self-service and online resilience, and the rising expectations of the ageing millennial generation, the demand for e-citizen services has never been greater.
Nevertheless, it’s important not just to consider the opinions of citizens towards digital services, but those of organisations and individuals within public sector agencies who design, deliver and manage the services.
Attitudes vs Action
A 2017 study conducted by Theo Blackwell, London’s first Chief Digital Officer, first investigated attitudes and perceptions of digital technologies among those who work in the public sector. This study found that the majority of those surveyed (64%) had a positive attitude towards technology and its impact on their area of responsibility over the next 10 years. This then raises further question as to why the public sector lags so far behind the private in their adoption of new technology despite the seemingly positive attitudes.
In an influential book titled ‘The Entrepreneurial State’ , Mariana Mazzucato claims that in the world’s most innovative countries it is governments who lead the way in effectively adopting new technology. She explains how private sector organisations only start investing in innovation and technology after their government has, because government first has to prove the benefits of the technology. This then de-risks investment for the private sector and allows them to forecast greater success. This observation indicates that governments globally must be the pioneering institutions for the rest of their country to follow.
Estonia is a shining example of a government leading digital transformation, and creating an environment for even unicorns such as Skype to foster. The nation has now been touted the most entrepreneurial country in Europe according to the World Economic Forum.
So why aren’t the positive attitudes Blackwell found in his survey being translated into action to lead the UK to a digital nation and entrepreneurial haven? When discussing the obstacle of decision-making, it comes down to leadership. In great examples in history, John F. Kennedy provided the vision of putting a man on the moon during the cold war. Private sector contractors were used in abundance, but the vision and drive came from government. Leadership is needed to reach consensus; whether it’s deciding how best to approach a moon shot or e-citizen services.
Only 1/3 of Deloitte’s 2018 global CIO survey respondents reported having an enterprise digital strategy; across both the public and private sector.
If our ambition is to become a world leading digital nation with a thriving, entrepreneurial economy, we need it to start from the top – the policy makers. While there is invaluable knowledge and experience available to be leveraged from the private sector, it must be the public sector who leads – and is seen to lead – the strategy to instil confidence and drive the positive change we need. Government can create the path for private sector to follow and thrive. This vision and leadership is made even more critical due to the response that is now needed as we recover from COVID-19.
This article is extracted from our research into attitudes towards technology adoption in the public sector – follow us on LinkedIn read more.
 Muhkerjee, 2017
 Reference Class Forecasting Survey, McKinsey and Company and Oxford University, 2012.
 European Commission, 2019
 Atos, 2017
 Mazzucato, 2013
Author: Iona Murray, SICCAR