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The SAP Institute for Digital Government is now operational. In this point of view I examine the question ‘what is digital government’.  The creation of public value through digital means is fundamental for defining digital government.    Digital government is more than simply making a government service digital such as putting a claim process online.

Investment decisions for digital government should be based on the potential return on investment in terms of public value. Digital government, like all things related to IT, is an evolving concept due to the rapid changes occurring in the IT industry.  It is often a case of “the eye of the beholder” with definitions of digital government influenced by the organisation(s) charged with developing and/or enabling a digital government strategy.

There are several governments around the world pursuing large scale digital government initiatives such as the UK, USA and more recently Australia with the establishment of the Digital Transformation Office.  These countries are all members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).  The OECD represents 34 advanced nations as well as some emerging economies.  IT-enabled modernisation across OECD member nations, including digital government, is a lever for getting economic and social development back on track post the Global Financial Crisis.  So rather than taking a country-specific approach, let’s examine what the OECD says about digital government, as it represents the combined views of its members.

The OECD Council adopted a recommendation for Digital Government Strategies on 15 July 2014 (1).  The recommendation is based on the following definition of digital government viz:  Digital Government refers to the use of digital technologies, as an integrated part of governments’ modernisation strategies, to create public value. It relies on a digital government ecosystem comprising government actors, non-governmental organisations, businesses, citizens’ associations and individuals which supports the production of and access to data, services and content through interactions with the government.

There are three key phrases within this definition:

    1) ….to create public value

    2) ….relies on a digital government ecosystem including individuals and government and non-government actors

    3) …..supports the production of and access to data, services and content

Focusing on these phrases, I propose a simpler definition of digital government : digital government  refers to the production and access to data, services and content, sourced and distributed across the digital ecosystem, to create public value.

I find this simple definition provides some clarity as to what is meant by digital government.  Foremost it highlights an important goal for digital government – create public value – not simply in terms of value for individuals through easy access to government transactions and information nor value for government in terms of doing more for less.  Rather, public value refers to the various benefits for society that may vary according to the perspective of the actors.  Public value is collective rather than what accrues to each party.  It reminds me of the principle:  ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’.    By creating public value, digital government contributes to the achievement of the state’s economic and social development goals.  This public value imperative places investment decisions for digital government initiatives at the feet of business owners rather than the IT department.

Secondly, this definition highlights that digital government relies on government, individuals and non-government actors collaborating through digital means.  The digital ecosystem includes government, non-government, business and individuals.  Digital government is not the sole domain of government agencies nor is it government-led business transformation.  It is a societal-wide phenomenon enabling government to interact with citizens and business in new and innovative ways, such as naturally connected, for the purpose of achieving better government.  Better government leads to increased levels of trust in public institutions, which in turn underpins a well-functioning modern society.

And finally, digital government represents the creation and access to services, data and content.  Services and content represent the highly visible, yet often transactional, side of government in a digital world.  For example, conducting business online with a single identity token with personal information is seamless and shared securely across government agencies on a need-to-know basis (naturally connected), has been the goal of the e-government movement since the Internet emerged as an agent for service delivery reform.

Policy makers also have much to gain from digital content and services, as data lines the heart of evidence based policy making.  Access to more and better data at source, in real time in a digital format provides policy makers with the evidence base for faster decision-making associated with targeted social and economic policy.  Importantly, the massive increase in digital data, both structured and unstructured, can be used to measure the social and economic impact of policy execution with lead indicators rather than the lag indicators generated through traditional evaluation methods.  For example, a targeted policy initiative based on lead indicators created and analysed digitally, could result in a public value creating, yet non-digital service response; e.g. a home visitation program for elderly people to proactively assist them with safe living in their own homes.  Digital government is as much a catalyst for policy reform, as it is an enabler for service delivery transformation. The Institute, in collaboration with clients and partners, will focus on:

  • enabling policy reform through efficient and effective  collection and analysis of data from all sources including rapidly emerging technology such as the Internet of Things
  • service delivery transformation through leveraging the natural connectivity of the digital ecosystem enabled by software-based platforms and business networks

The goal to demonstrate public value from digital government initiatives through leveraging technology is the raison d’être for the Institute.  Through working with business leaders and industry experts the Institute for will make a business value led contribution towards making digital government simple.


1): see  http://www.oecd.org/gov/public-innovation/Recommendation-digital-government-strategies.pdf

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  1. Brian Lee-Archer Post author

    Just had a very interesting conversation on this subject with analysts from Ovum – they made the point that while government is going digital, people are still analogue.  How the intersection of the two is managed will determine the success or otherwise of digital government initiatives.  This is highly relevant to the social protection industry which by its nature is people focused where human interaction at the right time and place remains fundamental to achieving good social outcomes.

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