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An Interview with William Eggers on Digitally Transforming Government

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill Brantley
June 7, 2016

I recently interviewed William Eggers whose book, Delivering on Digital: A Guide to Government Transformation, will be released in June.

Why the topic of government and digital?

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In a world where any song can be played instantly, any product on Earth can arrive to your doorstep in 24 hours, and a ride is never more than three minutes away from your phone, it’s absolutely inconceivable to have the patience of waiting weeks or months when waiting for a product or service.

The bar has been raised so high, and we have become spoiled in our assumptions so suddenly and deeply that for anything to operate less fast, intuitively or efficient than Amazon, Google, Uber, Facebook, Netflix or Airbnb, then it’s an instant death knell that few companies can escape.

Government cannot be immune to this massive change. In a constantly changing, evolving, adapting digital world, some parts of government are still living back in the 90s. This is unacceptable.

But there is hope, lots of hope and it’s because of both the hope and the necessity that I wrote this book.

What is the digital infrastructure like in most government agencies today?

Call it the “green screen” syndrome. Many government entities continue to handle critical public business processes on computers that today’s IT elite probably wouldn’t even recognize. Large piles of plastic, steel and wire that take up a lot of room and operate in the most unwieldy fashion… with a green screen interface. It’s a world of COBOL systems built decades ago, pre-world wide Web.

They are “legacy systems,” and they have risen to the top of the list of operational concerns when it comes to streamlining and securing how government work gets done. In a rapidly evolving era of “apps” and “clouds,” legacy systems continue to underpin an alarming percentage of the operational and data storage work that government – at all levels – actually does.

What’s the biggest challenge that government faces on its path to digital transformation?

Challenges to digital transformation abound: 30-year old legacy computer systems, slow-moving procurement systems and lack of digital skills in the workforce, to name a few. But the biggest obstacle is culture. The digital mindset puts a premium on openness, experimentation and fast failure in order to learn more quickly.

Such a mindset is often at odds with government cultures rooted in rules, regulations and mores that have evolved over decades or even centuries. Whereas a key tenet of digital delivery holds that you don’t know the right approach for users before you test it, the public sector’s requirement-driven culture, often based on legislation, assumes policymakers have all the answers a priori. The bottom line: there’s little reward in the public sector for taking risks and developing digital government can be risky business.

What is a “digital mindset” and how is it different from the mindset that most public sector organizations have?

A digital mindset is simply different from the attitudes driving most organizations, especially in the public sector. It’s a different way of thinking about customers; a different way of launching products and services; a different way of working.

Five characteristics tend to be common among individuals and organizations that understand the opportunities inherent in digital transformation: a belief in openness, user-centricity, co-creation, simplicity and agility. In many respects, the digital worldview is as important to the future of government as the labels “conservative” or “liberal” were to its past.

According to the Pew Research Center, trust in government is at historically low levels as only 19 percent of Americans trust the federal government to do what is right. With American citizens this distrustful and skeptical of government’s ability, what can policymakers do to convince the American public to support the digital transformation of the federal government?

One attitude has driven excellence at Uber, Airbnb, Amazon, Netflix and Apple in the last five years. They start with dedication to the user. It’s the user who pays their bills and so if the user is not happy, or in any way slowed down or frustrated by the technology, then the whole business crumbles. So they design simple and intuitive experiences.

Government services can no longer be rigid. Digital solutions allow us to adapt services to the user. This in turn will enhance trust in government.

The old mindset and lack of user focus can have an unintended negative consequence: loss of trust in government. As Mike Bracken, the founder of U.K.’s Government Digital Service, points out,

“When people stop believing in government, they stop believing in some quite fundamental things about how society works, like paying tax for the good of everyone or obeying the rules of society—these are the natural consequences of government losing the trust of its users.” 


Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Maryland (College Park) and the University of Louisville. He also works as a federal employee for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of his employers. He can be reached at http://about.me/bbrantley.

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One Response to An Interview with William Eggers on Digitally Transforming Government

  1. John Pearson Reply

    June 8, 2016 at 5:06 pm

    I was the business liaison for several legacy systems at a federal agency near the end of my career. I would have to disagree that culture is a big problem. The biggest problem is cost. Development and maintenance of IT systems is a very, very costly proposition. We had legacy systems that were over 30 years old. Your IT dollars are always limited. There is a constant fight for money. Management wants new systems to address new problems. The older systems need maintenance. All of the systems need constant security attention. Replacement of the legacy systems is the lowest priority.
    I don’t agree that government culture is “rooted in rules, regulations and mores that have evolved over decades or even centuries.” From my observation, nearly all rules can be traced back to legislation. In some cases, they may go back a few decades but not centuries. There are programmatic rules such as the rules that apply to the Social Security Administration or the IRS. These agencies exist to administer very complicated rules not to provide a simple service like Uber. There are federal procurement rules that are notoriously complex. And there are rules embedded in federal IT legislation such as the Clinger Cohen Act of 1996.
    I believe the totality of rules facing federal IT efforts (derived from legislation not culture) vastly exceeds the rules that Uber or Amazon would face for their IT efforts (although businesses do face a lot of government regulations). It’s not a fair comparison. It might be a good research topic for someone to compare the number of rules a federal agency deals with compared to a general business.

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