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Author's profile photo Sean O'BRIEN

The Digital Paradox For Public Services: Mr Ramsden, Irresistible Forces & Pragmatic Parallelism (Part 1)

One of my favourite subjects at school was Chemistry, My teacher at that time was Mr Ramsden, someone who really knew how to make experiments and learning fun, he was a great teacher.  I still remember to this day, the definitions of Brownian Motion (The random motion of particles suspended in a fluid or gas resulting from their collision with the fast-moving atoms or molecules in the liquid or gas) and diffusion (Net movement of molecules or atoms from a region of high concentration to a region of low concentration). When we did various experiments around this 35 years ago, the application of heat made these effects happen much more quickly and dramatically. When the other day I was talking about digitisation with some colleagues I thought about the relevance of these definition in our changing world today.

Back then, no one could have foreseen the exponential impact of digitisation. However when we think about digital diffusion and digital motion we can draw parallels to these definitions. Today, fast moving actors, technologies and innovations are colliding with traditional models, processes and ways of working. So much so they are changing the fundamentals for the way people live, work and play. Tectonic shifts in speeds and the scale of adoption are already completely disrupting industries, businesses and how we thought about the decades to come, for sure these digital particles of exponential change are colliding with many, many aspects of our lives, work and imagination.

There are many perspectives on why digital is becoming exponential, I think three perspectives really help explain this.

  1. S-Curves: Both speed and scale of mass adoption is like nothing we have seen before in history, it just gets faster, from years to weeks in some areas.
  2. 6 Dimensions to Exponentiality: I think Diamandis & Kotler real capture this well.
  3. Shifting Fundamentals: In 2001 DNA sequencing cost $100 Million, today it is $1000. We are seeing this in every industry and across every technology innovation. Making things we could never have imagined as affordable, feasible and viable.

Yet, I pause when I think of the industry I know very well and have worked in all my life, namely public services. We can see the irresistible forces created by digitization, that are and will continue to have a profound impact upon our lives’s today and increasingly in the future. As a father I often think about what the future will hold for my children, what is the best subject to study and career to follow. When I have asked digital thought leaders from across the world about the future, no one knows what the next 5 years will look like, never mind the next 10-15 years. For some this uncertainty can be paralyzing, yet you have to embrace the uncertainty and if the average life expectancy of our young people will reach 100 years. They have a lot of time to enjoy life, pursue multiple careers and learn many new things. As a father, I say to my children follow what you believe in and love to do.

As for Public Services, they have often appeared as an immovable object in the face of irresistible digital forces. There are three understandable reasons for this;

  • Governing in perpetuity: 2000+ as a monopolistic entity means history, heritage and values stand in the way of real digital transformation.
  • Timeless Mission: It is widely understood, that the core mission of government or public services across the world is to deliver upon their mandate to protect, to provide and to prosper. Which is unlike any other industry, serving all the people not just the profitable one’s.
  • Institutional Inertia: Culture, leadership, skills, strategy and ambition have also been hugely constraining factors.

As the pace of exponential change accelerates around public services, seen through the lens of citizen’s, businesses and blurring industries, something has got to give. It will not be digital.

For public services, like no other industry they feel constrained by politics, their timeless mandate. They need to serve everyone and face massively rising expectations from citizens about government’s increasing role in the economy, public protection and service provision.

But this will always be the challenge and so with less resources, more challenges and greater needs they will never round this circle, instead a more radical digital agenda is needed.

We are already seeing this in some countries with initiatives around Blockchain, Artificial Intelligence, Smart Traffic and Data Driven Government. Clearly we should never lose sight of what exponential digital change is there to do, improve the lives of people and deliver better prosperity, protection and service provision. That is why in my opinion government’s need to have to adopt pragmatic parallelism for digital.

  1. Citizen’s First: Make this about citizen’s their needs, opinions and choices, use digital to improve their lives and in parallel reimagine structures and ways of cross agency working. Many of the challenges faced in improving children’s lives, improving cities, enhancing public security public health, etc. are all involve increasingly blurred value chains across all actors in government, private sector and voluntary sectors.
  2. Changing Outcomes: Everyday our police, firefighters, EMS, doctors, nurses and public officials demonstrate outstanding service, even if some fall short from time to time. Digitisation should empower them to improve outcomes whilst retaining the values of public service, professionalism and society that led them to their chosen career in the first place. No longer should structures, systems and digital tools let them down.
  3. Innovation with Inclusion: Digital for all may be a realisable ambition but not everyone sees the benefits or has access to digital. When governments deploy digital innovation for better outcomes, this must be done in the context of inclusion. So a digital citizen using self-service frees up resources who can spend more time face to face with those who have no access. Building digital skills for disadvantaged communities so they see the benefit and gain access to better opportunities. Improving digital access to startup’s and small businesses so they create prosperity within the communities in which they live.

 I believe that no longer can Public Services be the immovable object, digital forces are irresistible in many industries and communities. However exponential change in public services must be done with a pragmatic parallelism. 


 In my next blog, I will examine how digital can be applied in new ways to deliver better outcomes through a reimagined public services.




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