The public sector is overdue for innovation — and civil servants understand that better than anyone. They’re eager to deliver faster, smarter and more customized services using the best of today’s emerging technologies geared toward government. So why has digital transformation been slow to take hold?

The crux of this issue could be a different perspective of taking on risks and the resulting culture that understandably exists at many government offices. As the stewards of public trust, these offices have a fundamental duty to make fair decisions that benefit the largest number of people possible. Civil servants must work within complex constellations of laws and balance conflicting stakeholder interests.

Besides this, they have legislature controlling the funding process that profoundly impacts their work and capabilities. All these factors coalesce into a government culture that moves slowly and carefully — especially when it comes to replacing existing processes with tech-driven upgrades and building a culture of innovation.

Risk avoidance and good governance go hand in hand. However, it can also stifle progress. A public used to endless innovation coming out of the private sector now expects that same amount of convenience from the public sector. In one survey, 67% of respondents said they wanted the government to make it easier to access digital services. The majority said they’d use more government digital services if they were available through one portal. If extreme risk aversion prevents agencies from embracing digital transformation, it will only alienate the people those agencies are supposed to serve and decrease satisfaction, resulting in a much higher risk for civil servants.

Approaching Digital Transformation With a Watchful Eye

In short, agencies can only prolong government digital transformation for so long before people demand change. Here’s how to make progress without creating unnecessary risk:

1. Embrace a culture of innovation. First and foremost, government offices must overcome tendencies to hesitate with technology. However well-intentioned they are, this can limit meaningful change.

So what does an innovation-driven culture look like? Primarily, it embraces opportunities to do things differently. Leadership makes a clear commitment to improvement through technology and then does whatever necessary to empower staff with support and resources. Perhaps most importantly, leaders in an innovation culture accept that measured failure is the cost of trying something new. Instead of punishing suboptimal results or using them as a pretext to scale back digital transformation, innovative leaders frame failure as a learning experience. Risk aversion becomes (reasonable) risk tolerance.

2. Adopt an agile approach. Implementing innovation in a risk-averse culture isn’t about leaping into large projects. In fact, results are always better and more lasting when organizations take on a series of small projects, as the stakes are lower if something goes wrong. Small changes also allow for an agile approach, where an organization adapts to the ever-changing circumstances in front of it.

Florida, for example, is seeing an influx of young newcomers, creating dynamic demand for public services. Taking an agile approach based on immediate, impactful tech upgrades allows the government to keep pace with the people like never before.

3. Invest in the right tech. It’s traditional thinking to assume that custom-developed software solutions offer the shortest path toward digital transformation because they do exactly what users need. Despite this, they can also be expensive and limited. Open-source software also looks appealing because of the low cost and community support. The risk, however, is that the underlying code hasn’t been carefully vetted for vulnerabilities, leaving users exposed to security risks as a result.

The best tech for risk-averse adopters is cloud and SaaS-based solutions. This option is more secure, can handle a broader number of applications, and offers the reporting features that government users need to ensure transparency and accountability.

Government digital transformation and responsible risk management are not mutually exclusive. What isn’t compatible is the status quo in a world where government services are urgently important. If government agencies are going to meet the unique demands of this moment, digital transformation is the answer — and the time to change is now.

Originally published on January 11, 2021 in GovLoop

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