Throughout the world, governments and public sector agencies are facing pressures in ways that have rarely been experienced before.
Natural disasters, uncertain economic conditions, and shifting demands of citizens are forcing change at an unprecedented rate. Governments unable or unwilling to respond to these pressures risk voter backlash and civil discontent.
Across all segments of the public sector, organizations are facing the grim reality of needing to achieve more with less. Caught between constrained budgets and increasing demand for service delivery, departments and agencies must find methods to improve efficiencies while also lowering operational costs.
In many cases, there is also a desire to conserve funds for further potential disruptions. Experts predict that COVID-19 is unlikely to be the last global pandemic. In fact, according to some experts, it could become endemic — this means that this particular pathogen will never fully disappear from the population.
What the last year-plus has shown us is our resiliency in overcoming challenges and that all levels of governments should prioritize investments in digital transformation to be well-prepared to act immediately to unforeseen circumstances. This will help them successfully navigate today, tomorrow, and what lies beyond that.
A changing workforce
There are also pressures for change coming from within. As a new generation of staff enters the workforce, they bring with them expectations that differ from those who have been in place for years.
Reared in the era of mobility and online interactions, many are finding themselves frustrated by the manual and often paper-based processes that still exist within all levels of government. A sector that has tended not to be at the forefront of technology adoption is now expected to make the changes that are required.
While some public-sector organizations may have already taken some steps, far more progress will be needed. The shift from paper to digital platforms may have begun but, in many instances, information is now held in isolated applications and databases that are not integrated with other components in core processes.
For example, one team might have collected citizen data in an Excel spreadsheet while another has used a third-party application. Combining and processing this data and reaching a desired outcome, therefore, remains laborious and challenging to complete.
Younger workers are also keen for their workplaces to be more like their private lives. There, data is stored on cloud platforms and available from any location and on a variety of devices. Achieving this within many parts of the public sector is, unfortunately, still some way off.
Brought to a head by the virus
The need for fundamental changes to many established processes was brought into stark relief by the global COVID-19 pandemic. With many staff members forced to work from home, operational methods that had worked well in the office had to be quickly re-architected.
Shifting citizen requirements also required rapid changes. The rapid establishment of everything from virus testing hubs to additional medical treatment facilities required new processes to be quickly constructed and put to work. It was a bit like driving a truck while it was still being built.
Unfortunately, in many cases, the resulting processes were far from ideal. Often, staff had to revert to paper-based forms and record keeping as digital replacements were simply not available. In other places, process changes went little further than scanning static forms and uploading them to a website.
There has, however, been something of a silver lining during the pandemic. Many government departments and agencies have noted a significant improvement in the way in which staff communicate, both with each other and the citizens they are serving.
Staff realized they could often no longer shout over the room divider or consult colleagues by walking down the corridor to their office. Instead, they had to rapidly adopt cloud-based messaging and collaboration tools to get the job done. As a result, many employees are finding they are now much more engaged and able to consult with others as and when required.
Continuing the challenge of process improvement
Now, early in 2021, it’s vital that the progress achieved during the pandemic is not allowed to slow. Public-sector organizations need to ensure that momentum is maintained, and further goals are reached.
This is particularly important when you consider the large number of extensive projects being undertaken by agencies at all levels of government. In an effort to stimulate the economy, agencies have brought forward spending on large-scale initiatives such as public infrastructure and housing. New schools and hospitals are being planned with the focus on generating new jobs and pumping cash through local economies.
For these projects to succeed, it will be important to have in place the processes required to support everything from planning and budgeting to management and reporting. Fully-integrated processes need to be designed and deployed well before the works themselves begin.
In other areas, such as the defense forces, further progress on process transformation and automation is needed to support the myriad activities underway. For example, efficient and effective processes are needed to track equipment in the field and ensure vital maintenance is carried out as schedules require. In education, processes are required that ensure students receive the academic support they require, even when forced to complete classes from home.
The technologies being deployed
There are a range of core technologies that will underpin the process transformation and automation projects to be undertaken within public sector organizations. Each offers to deliver significant benefits for staff and the citizens they serve.
Topping the list is robotic process automation (RPA). This technology frees humans from mundane, repetitive tasks and streamlines manual processes. Deployed correctly, it can significantly reduce the time required to complete workloads and free up staff to focus on more value-adding activities.
Another technology being deployed is artificial intelligence (AI). While still in its infancy within the public sector, AI has the potential to improve the way services are delivered across a wide range of areas.
For example, AI tools could be used to scan incoming requests for assistance and automatically provide relevant information in response. AI tools could also be used to analyze large volumes of data to spot emerging trends. Recommendations can then be provided on how to guide future infrastructure investments in everything from roads and rail to energy plants and mines.
A third area is mobility. While this is already well established in many areas, the potential for it to further aid in process improvement is significant. Properly equipped staff could quickly respond to incidents in the field by accessing centrally-stored data. Communication between teams can also be boosted, thus ensuring processes can be completed as quickly as possible.
A step-by-step approach
Achieving effective process change and automation requires a multi-step approach. Each is designed to move an organization closer to the point where it can enjoy the significant benefits that are possible. The key steps are:
Obtain senior management buy-in: To be successful, a process optimization and automation project needs to have the backing of senior managers. This support will help to convince staff at all levels that the effort required will deliver the desired results.
Identify pain points: There is little point in undertaking a change program unless everyone is very clear on exactly what problem is being addressed. Identify the relevant pain points and understand where transformation efforts will have the most impact.
Map out the approach: Once target pain points are known, map out the steps that need to be taken. Determine which elements within each target process should be retained and which need to be changed.
Define success: Take time to clearly define what a successful outcome will be. Nominate clear metrics around efficiency gains, cost reductions, and service improvements.
Ongoing consultation: It is important to undertake constant consultation with all relevant stakeholders throughout the project. Keeping everyone on board will greatly enhance the prospects of success.
Meeting the demands of the public
The push for process enhancement and transformation is being heightened by shifts in the expectations of citizens. In a recent survey by Deloitte and Adobe, 56% of respondents indicated they prefer to access government information via digital channels. The survey also found that 50% of people find that information is inconsistent across different government sources and most face delays.
This confirms that there is still much work to be done when it comes to improving the core processes responsible for delivering services to citizens. At all levels, governments must work to close the gap between expectations and reality. This can only be achieved through comprehensive process transformation and automation.
Looking to the future
The global events of the past year have served to highlight some of the areas within the public sector in which core processes need to evolve. Whether it’s the delivery of front-line services or the distribution of accurate information about healthcare options, having efficient and effective processes in place has never been more vital.
It’s certainly clear that much has already been achieved. Working against the clock, government agencies have created support infrastructures and measures from scratch that will continue to add value to the lives of millions of people for years to come.
However, the job is not finished. By embracing the concept of process transformation and deploying technologies such as automation and artificial intelligence, public-sector processes can be improved even further. The results will justify the effort required.
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