Our recent series of digital transformation articles have highlighted myriad challenges to digital transformation across all kinds of private organisations. Some – particularly travel and hospitality, banking and retail – are ahead of the curve, while others – notably construction and education – recently found themselves needing to accelerate their technological approach post-haste during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The public sector, however, is arguably the trickiest area of all in which to achieve significant digital transformation. Here, we’ll look in-depth at the challenges and difficulties in digital transformation for the public sector, along with some suggestions for overcoming them.

What are the challenges of public sector digital transformation?

No single business area brings together as many disparate functions, jurisdictions and policies as the public sector. Users want to navigate it all on a system that’s joined up and simple to use – a lot like online shopping portals. However, with so many individual departments, legal loopholes, and legacy systems to navigate, it’s no surprise that few initiatives for digital transformation in the public sector ever get off the ground.

These are the main challenges:

1. Lots of services, but very little connection

Put simply, when you’re digitising the way a private business works, you may have to account for a handful of customer journeys – factoring in things like purchasing products, consuming content, and checking transactions. Those can weave through potentially tens of company services, facilitating hundreds of customer transactions.

Adapting a business of that nature is tricky enough. But what if those numbers grow exponentially?

That’s precisely the challenge faced by local governments. The scope of the different services they offer are so diverse that they might have hundreds of individual customer journeys to account for – across services as varied as tax payment, license processing, business registration, visa requests and benefits collection. They could use a thousand or more individual services, which contribute to several thousand individual transactions. All of which are owned by different departments, in different areas of the county (or even country), with different legalities to follow and consider.

On the user side, it just makes sense to have a single login to a portal that lets you access all of these functions. But actually building a system that connects each function in an effective and compliant manner is one of the biggest challenges of public sector digital transformation.

2. Traditional working cultures that are resistant to change

In a previous blog on digital transformation, we mentioned workplace culture as one of the biggest barriers for organisations of all kinds. However, it can prove an especially big blocker to digital transformation in the public sector.

When you consider how intricate and complex some of the formal legal procedures that civil servants have to observe in their work are, it’s not difficult to understand why they might be resistant to change – or feel cynical about the ability for a new, joined-up system to allow them to stay compliant.

After all, if keeping on top of their caseload is difficult enough for a civil servant, doing so in a way that asks them to collaborate with teams in other departments they never used to – or asks them to consider more legalities outside of their usual scope – might feel like too much work.

Instead of being frustrated by such naysayers, it’s important to acknowledge that they speak from years of experience and a deep desire to do right by the people they serve and recognising that is an essential step to public sector digital transformation in the new world of connected, cross-team collaboration.

3. Low budgets and tight timelines vs old and slow legacy systems

The fact that every pound that public sector institutions spend comes from taxpayers’ money means that bosses at councils, emergency services and similar organisations can never expect to command the same kind of budgets as their nearest private sector equivalents. Yet, at the same time, the ubiquity and scale of services they offer mean the need for instant responses and solutions is often every bit as great, if not greater.

This was shown during the Covid-19 pandemic, when initiatives like test and trace and furlough necessitated vast investment of public funds into technological and administrative solutions, in order to tackle an urgent public need.

These were problems that existing legacy systems simply weren’t designed for, and prove how quickly such solutions can be turned around when absolutely necessary.

But at the same time, the pandemic was an extreme situation that just highlights some typical tech transformation challenges in the public sector.

Retiring legacy systems in favour of more forward-thinking ones will set up local and national governments the world over to respond better, faster, and at lower expense, if and when such a crisis (of any nature) arises in future.

Overcoming digital transformation barriers in the public sector

The barriers to digital transformation in the public sector are sizeable but not insurmountable. These are just some of the steps institutions can consider to effect public sector digital transformation in the new world, post-pandemic.

Focus on the front-end

Joining up every back-end system might be a long-term goal, but in the short term, public sector institutions can focus on the quick win of making their digital offering easier to interact with. Offering services online and making online forms as simple as possible to complete (ideally with lots of clearly worded guidance included on the page) is a smart, and relatively inexpensive first step.

Set up agile, cross-team working groups

In the private sector, the ‘waterfall’ method of project management (where one task follows the previous one) is often perfectly effective when undertaking a large project – even a digital transformation one.

In the public sector, however, the sheer number of different functions and departments means this is often a complete non-starter. Instead, McKinsey suggests:

“The best approach to achieving stakeholder alignment is convening ‘labs,’ each responsible for a specific journey. In this way of working, civil servants from all relevant public authorities collaborate directly with users to reimagine the experience and plan a phased release—from minimal viable product to fully automated service transaction. By condensing design and stakeholder alignment into a series of agile sprints, labs can deliver impressive results in a very short time frame.”

Whether you call it a ‘lab,’ a ‘team’ or a ‘cross-functional working group,’ getting the left hand talking to the right by assembling a set of your organisation’s most knowledgeable people, and having them all adopt an agile methodology, seems a smart way to start solving your digital transformation problems.

Work with the right development partner

Digitally transforming any business from the inside out without guidance or experience can be an enormous undertaking. Even more so if you run an institution as complex and multifaceted as one in the public sector.

However, turning to the private sector for expertise and support can actually save time, money and untold technical issues in the long term.

At DCSL GuideSmiths, we’ve spent years working with local government and other public sector institutions to solve their problems in the smartest, easiest and most tech-savvy way. From assisting NHS facilities to gather valuable feedback and record test results intuitively, to supporting the Educational Competencies Consortium with job role analysis, and aiding the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency by automating their operations, we’ve supplied solutions that have significantly boosted the productivity of public sector organisations across the country.

To see how we could help you, visit our pages about digital transformation for enterprises and software for government and the public sector, or get in touch to set up a consultation.