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Why Digital Modernization Means Taking More Risks

When government modernizes the tools it uses, it can improve its processes, reduce costs and better meet citizens’ needs. But many government leaders feel like their hands are tied and taking more risks isn’t something they’re used to doing.

According to Mitch Weiss, Professor of Management Practice for the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at the Harvard Business School, this way of thinking needs to shift. Weiss was the keynote speaker for the 2018 Granicus National Summit. The Summit was modeled around the theme of “Leading Through Digital Modernization” – an area in which Weiss has considerable expertise. He spoke on the rewards that come from taking risks around modernizing government.

Modernizing Government in the Country of Georgia

People want the public sector to embrace technology like the private sector does – and they want an experience akin to the Apple store. In the country of Georgia, Weiss witnessed just that. “There was an agency that did copy and business registration, and what we saw was the digital modernization of government. There were digital databases instead of paper, world class IT products and world class IT workers,” Weiss said.

The agency was able to provide swift turnarounds with their newly digitized methods. Registration processes that used to take as long as 39 days were reduced to four. In 2017, the agency began experimenting with blockchain, a tool that Weiss says greatly contributed to the fast registration process.

“Digital databases were no longer sufficient; they wanted an immutable, un-hackable database,” Weiss explained. “Their highest aspiration was distributed databases and records that were held on numerous computers around the world.” However, the Georgia government had minimal assurance that the blockchain would successfully modernize their efforts. So why did they make the switch?

Taking a Risk for Modernization

If you’re unfamiliar with or wary of blockchain and other new technologies, the success story of the Georgia agency might not convince you to implement modern technologies at your organization. But Weiss said that taking a small risk is a huge part of the digitization process.

“What intrigues me about cities and countries around the world is the way that savvy governments are becoming adept at experimenting with digital technologies,” Weiss said.
“And what is interesting about the republic of Georgia is what government officials did in the face of uncertainty: they dipped their toe in the water.” In other words, they were public sector entrepreneurs.

Weiss explained that a willingness to experiment and take risks could lead to a wave of modernization efforts in the United States public sector. “The most remarkable thing about the next wave of government digitization is not the new, remarkable technology but that digital allows us to be agile, nimble and inventive. And I believe that’s what modern government needs to be.”

Modern Government is Inventive Government

Weiss said the success of the Georgia agency demonstrates the importance of imagining a newer and more inventive government when implementing digitization. “We all have this mental model of our government leaders and often we believe they need to be good analysts and good strategists, but government needs inventors and builders too,” Weiss said.

By slowly implementing new systems—much like an entrepreneur—in concurrence with existing systems, agencies can begin their journey to modernization. “The experiment does not have to be a wholesale rollout, but rather a series of tests,” Weiss reassured. However, even with careful implementation not all modernization trials go well, which is why Weiss says the public sector should follow the following tips before experimentation:

  • Explain to the public and the agency that experiments are for learning.
  • Get rid of what’s not working and scale what is.
  • Engage the public in your agency’s experiments.
  • Remember that the status quo is sometimes the less safe choice.
  • Build portfolios of your agency’s experiments.

If agencies followed these steps and put more stock in experimentation and less in digital tools, the public sector could become a leading force of digital modernization.