Who could forget #censusfail last year? After a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack and concerns over potential loss of data during the 2016 Census, the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Census site was shut down for days. Once it was eventually restored on 11 August 2016, it was successfully used by millions of Australians to submit their census data.
From a tech perspective, this could be seen as a minor setback to a large and complex project that was successfully delivered from many perspectives.
However, the high profile and time-critical nature of the census meant that a relatively minor delay resulted in significant public dissatisfaction and media attention. The prime minister called for a Senate inquiry to establish the factors leading to the shutdown.
Examples of digital government setbacks and failures exist globally. They demonstrate how easy it is for the public failure of a major digital government project to result in the slowdown or outright cancellation of entire programs.
Incidents such as sustained service outage, frequent service outages, and security or privacy breaches should all be dealt with as critical incidents.
The challenge for CIOs is that the journey to digital government is complex, involving significant investment in technology and fundamental changes to how agencies operate.
Change of this magnitude can’t be achieved without the agency taking on a level of risk – and we all know how risk-averse government agencies can be, especially their comparably low appetite for technology-based risks.
Unfortunately this means that any incident could drive government agencies to take a step back at precisely the moment in time when it should be making bold investments in digital.
Confidence in IT among government agency leaders may also erode and prevent their continued sponsorship of digitally enabled transformation. Regardless of the merit in the program, strategic and financial support can waiver when faced with the risk of public failure.
To make things even harder, CIOs are also forced to deal with the consequences of digital government failures in other agencies, levels of government or locations across the world. Although outside of their control, CIOs need to prepare their agency for the reality of such events.
An incremental approach is needed to build resilience within agency leadership and inspire confidence in your programs.
1. Build resilience and digital acumen
Start by establishing a resilient digital leadership before high-profile digital government failures occur. If not, expect progress on digital government transformation to be impeded.
Delays can manifest as changes to the funding or scope of the program. They may also result in the tolerance for acceptable risk lowered or additional burdensome governance requirements placed on your program.
Developing digital leadership will enable agency leaders to effectively weigh the risks of transitioning to digital government against the benefits, by drawing on the lessons from other government agencies and the private sector.
These informed leaders are more likely to be more steadfast in their support for your digital government program, even in the wake of collateral damage from a digital government failure.
2. Sustain momentum
Implement a shared digital government strategy and continuous delivery practices to sustain momentum. Shared global between agency executive and IT are a critical part of digital leadership. IT can't expect to successful deliver digital government if it's perceived by the rest of the agency to be focused on technology, not on business goals.
Once the strategy is established, it's time to get your hands dirty and start delivering tangible business benefits quickly - political and agency leadership can change even within political cycles.
Achieving sustainable momentum is directly linked to maintaining trust and credibility. This can be vital in establishing a degree of tolerance when faced with any future setbacks.
3. Work transparently and communicate openly
Working transparently should be at the core of all IT principles and should be clearly demonstrated by the actions of you and your IT leadership team. Open and continuous communication around progress, successes and setbacks should underpin every stage of the digital transformation, from planning to delivery.
An effective communication strategy will be vital to the transformation momentum being recognised and to ensuring ongoing commitment to your program.
4. Take a proactive, enterprise-level view on risk management
Perspective on risk is one of the fundamental divides between government agencies and the private sector. Agency executives are not driven by a desire for growth or shareholder return, like in the private sector.
Typically, they’re sensitive to changes in the perceived risk profile of any activity. This can be driven by a combination of internal stakeholders, political leaders, external stakeholder or citizens. It can also be amplified by social and mainstream media.
If you use a traditional IT project-based approach to risk management, you’ll most likely find a misalignment between the risk mitigation activities of the program and the current risk appetite of the agency executive.
It’s important to take an enterprise-level view on risk management, responding quickly to shifts in the risk appetite by expediting adjustments within the program of work.
To keep your digital government program on track and aligned with expected agency outcomes, constantly work with both your IT leadership teams and the agency leadership on these four factors to build a confident and resilient digital government... and avoid becoming the next #[insertproject] fail.
Dean Lacheca is a public sector research director at Gartner. He focuses on digital government, particularly digital strategy, government portals, citizen engagement, API integration and emerging technology trends.
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