How digitization can break down silos
- By Ari Vidali
- Jun 15, 2021
By now, we’re all aware of the inefficiencies outdated computer systems can inflict upon public institutions, their employees and the people they serve. Likewise, we all know at least some of the factors that allow this stagnation to continue: limited budgets, interdependence on other (similarly antiquated) systems and even issues like internal political wrangling. These factors can uphold legacy processes, generally to the detriment of everyone involved.
Instead of accepting these issues as inescapable realities of public sector life, it’s time for governments hampered by legacy systems to take a longer view on their continued use. The same tools that create impossible experiences for users and massive backlogs for agencies today aren’t going to be any more useful in the future -- and they’ll only grow less sustainable as the technology gulf widens.
Evolving past the point of diminishing returns
Unfortunately, public-sector systems are slow to evolve, creating situations where legacy technologies struggle or abjectly fail to meet a sudden change in need. The resulting backlogs can contribute to the perception that the government is failing to meet its essential obligations. It’s a nasty pattern that can feed on itself and challenge government officials and employees deciding how to react.
There’s a simple sign that a government or subordinate agency may be caught in this trap: bloat. When “simple and inexpensive” tasks such as records archiving begin to take a disproportionate amount of the budget and/or employee time, there’s a good chance they’re due to be replaced by something more elegant.
Those inefficiencies can also create a host of systemic problems so ingrained they’re difficult to pinpoint, let alone solve.
Sourcing talent, already a notoriously difficult aspect government IT, only grows more challenging in an environment where every spare penny goes to managing cumbersome paper files.
Instead of attacking the root of the problem, some governments may waste time and money attempting to integrate minimally functional systems into newer, more advanced front ends: a newly integrated HR system sourcing data from uncategorized, scanned paper records, for instance.
Ancient systems can also contribute to supply chain attacks and make both diagnosing and preventing cyberattacks extremely difficult, especially on a government entity’s limited cybersecurity budget.
Breaking down silos with better tools
The pandemic also exposed a need for tools that help governments move forward as a single entity. Without tools that enhance communication, collaboration and information sharing among relevant departments, larger organizations can -- and typically do -- spin their wheels when it comes time to modernize, restructure or even make basic operational/experiential changes.
When discussing how government agencies and departments interact it’s important to note that communication and collaboration take many forms. For one entity, simply allowing customers to pay their various fees and bills from a single online portal may seem like a miracle of modern technology. For others, uploading information from one department (test results or disciplinary history into an HR system, for example) and viewing it at a glance may rank high among the agency’s overarching needs.
The central concept here is cohesion: Agencies need tools that support specialized workflows at the departmental level and have a high degree of interplay at the institutional level.
No matter how this looks for individual agencies, the plan they follow at a high level should always include the following steps:
- Attack with a plan. Knowing roughly how an automated/digitized system should look -- if only at a high level -- helps agencies identify tools that can help them achieve their goals.
- Solve to both sides. A plan should directly address both operational inefficiencies and customer-facing issues. The two are often related in the public-safety arena.
- Think like a business. Private-sector organizations have more motivation to provide slick, seamless experiences from the start. Following their model -- if only philosophically -- can help identify legacy systems/processes that must evolve.
- Identify and extrapolate. Even legacy systems and the processes that use them can include innovations and best practices. By identifying these positive points, agencies give themselves a better chance to develop a system that works from an operational and experiential perspective.
Conclusion: Digitize, modernize, and move forward
At this point, digitization and automation are far from luxuries in public sector IT. They’re necessities whose importance only grows as the technology gap expands and exposes the weaknesses of agencies left behind.
Instead of languishing with legacy tools that no longer suit their needs, governments should instead consider inefficient technology as a challenge that needs to be overcome for the good of each agency and the people it serves.