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How to Talk About Digital Transformation in Government

A recent report from the University at Albany’s Center for Technology in Government shares helpful theory and tools for communicating the value and practicality of digital transformation to public-sector leaders.

Digital transformation concept. Binary code. AI (Artificial Intelligence).
A recent report offers advice and tools to state and local IT leaders for communicating with other government leaders about the public value of digital transformation in government.

Particularly as digital services become increasingly important for state and local government, all sides of government — whether IT, program, policy or another segment — must come together to understand “how a digital transformation might create value within a specific context” and “what it takes to create public value through the envisioned digital transformation,” according to the report by the University at Albany’s Center for Technology in Government (CTG).

“The question that I always ask when I gather groups of people is, what project would you carry out that would bring the most value to the government? Don’t think about the cost … and every single time, the top one is modernization,” said Meghan Cook, CTG program director and co-author of the report.

Even though modernization is at the top of many government leaders’ minds, that doesn’t mean everyone will be on the same page about any particular modernization project. Cook said the most successful digital transformation projects involve strong relationships across department heads and other leaders, where everything is “seen as the government [as a whole] carrying out the services.”

Sometimes starting the conversation about a digital transformation project can be difficult. The report includes a tool that can break the ice — a table called “Seven Dimensions of the Digital Government Maturity Model Framework,” which breaks down all the pieces needed for optimal digital transformation.

“It’s a good way to get leaders talking about something,” Cook said. “Some government leaders benefit from using a guide to think about the capabilities necessary to achieve transformation.”

Theresa Pardo, CTG senior fellow and co-author of the report, said part of the challenge in creating successful digital transformation lies in identifying “which types of value are most salient.” For example, many discussions about tech in government fail to recognize that modernization and cybersecurity can play off each other.

“If we could get folks to understand that if you reduce some of the legacy systems, you might actually achieve value with respect to your cybersecurity priorities, because older systems are more vulnerable,” Pardo said. “But that doesn’t come up on the radar when we’re talking about cybersecurity investments.”

Pardo said the role that program and policy leadership can play in helping make choices about digital transformation initiatives is “underappreciated.” She has seen an evolution in how program and policy leadership lacks proper representation at the table.

“The challenge, at least in the last 10 to 15 years, is less about convincing the IT people that they need to engage the program and policy leadership as it is about convincing the program and policy leadership that they have to stay involved, that they are critical to the development of a deep understanding of the context within which a digital transformation takes place,” Pardo explained.

Cook emphasized that no government should “take an RFP from another government.” Instead, it should bring its many stakeholders together and examine the needs that should be addressed with an investment. She added that part of the conversation should be about how mature the government is on a continuum of low- and high-end organizations.
Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.