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Digital Governance: what it is and why it is critical to the future of digital government

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We live in extraordinary times. Never before in the history of humankind, have we experienced such rapid change. Since the beginning of the industrial age, which yielded tremendous productivity and economic growth through mechanisation and a revolution in manufacturing, there has been a massive improvement in computational power that is catapulting us into the 4th industrial revolution.

This is currently dominated by a wave of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. The future will see a convergence of AI, robotics, and sensor technology that even science fiction writers would struggle to envision. Add quantum computing, genetic engineering and nano-technology, and the lines between traditional mechanical systems and biological systems begin to blur.

The result of these technological advancements will see societal systems challenged on a global scale. The realisation of the fourth industrial revolution will affect how we think about incentives, ethics, rules, and societal norms. This change has already started, as evidenced by how humans communicate, learn, and interact in this increasingly virtual world.

What are the implications then for digital government?

Governments across Australia are focussed to differing extents on digital transformation with some agencies well advanced. Nationally, the Australian Data and Digital Council has been established with ministerial representation from Commonwealth and State jurisdictions, with the objective of improving cross-government collaboration on digital transformation initiatives and the sharing of data.

But what do we mean by digital transformation? For the purposes of this short article, I will define digital transformation as the leveraging of technology to create organisational value for multiple stakeholders. Digital transformation requires sustained cultural, systemic, and operational change through the integration of digital technologies and customer-centred processes delivered by a digitally-capable workforce.

Digital transformation in government and by association, digital government, involves a tectonic shift in siloed, point-in-time services and point-in-time citizen accountabilities to a whole-of-life conception of a citizen’s interactions with government and how those interactions interplay in an individual’s contribution to society and their quality of life.

But what of citizen expectations of digital government?

Let’s begin with the social contract between governments and citizens, this contract is based on rational individuals voluntarily relinquishing certain natural freedoms in exchange for the protection of their remaining rights and the maintenance of social order.

Why is this social contract relevant or important to digital government? The move to digital government must preserve this social contract. And, for the social contract to work, to maintain social order, citizens must place their trust in government or more precisely – a digital government.

 What is digital governance?

Drawing on the literature, digital (or IT) governance is defined as the decision rights and accountability frameworks for encouraging desirable behaviours in the use of information technology. I would like to add my own flavour to this definition by including that effective digital governance requires a considered and sustained focus on digital risks.

Digital governance is more than establishing a project board or steering committee. Digital governance requires an understanding of the digital investment lifecycle that begins with the decision processes for the investment of resources, then progresses to implementation of systems and processes, and ends with broad systems adoption and benefits optimisation.

Barriers to success may include the immaturity of the technology or the inexperience of the vendor in implementing the technology. There may be a lack of transparency of the full lifecycle costs of the system or the organisation lacks the internal capability to implement and support the technology. There are a number of risk factors that should be considered, yet many organisations focus on the drivers for change, without considering whether or not the organisation is ready, willing, and able to change.

Three key governance controls that agencies should have in place.

  1. A digital governance strategy

A critical starting point for effective governance of digital assets and investment is to have a strategy. Beyond the customary principled approach to establishing a future vision for stakeholders, a digital strategy needs to be accompanied by an achievable plan that overviews the anticipated program of work, capital, and operating costs as well as timeframes for implementation and benefits realisation.

  1. Digital governance leadership

Firstly, each agency needs to embed structural authority for digital leadership. Fast forward twenty years and we won’t need to have this conversation, because digital leadership competencies will be the norm amongst C-suite members rather than the exception that we experience today. Until then, agencies need a competent Chief Digital Officer or Chief Information Officer with a seat at the leadership table.

  1. A digital governance committee

Agencies should establish a digital governance committee comprising key business leaders and stakeholders where digital strategy and priorities can be debated and agreed. This committee should act as an internal board of governance with oversight of the portfolio of digital transformation projects and an enduring focus on benefits realisation and optimisation.

Additional governance controls to consider.

  1. A policy framework that reinforces citizens’ rights

Another important governance control, particularly in relation to citizen expectations of digital government, is the implementation of information and technology policies and procedures that reinforce citizen rights, especially as they relate to information security and privacy.

  1. Aligned business cases

In addition to arguing the merits of the investment and the value to be created, a key element of the business case is a frank discussion about the risks associated with the investment.

  1. Focused and competent project boards

Project boards provide senior oversight and governance of project execution to ensure resources are properly utilised, risk and issues are dealt with and most importantly, project objectives are met.

At QUT, we have established the QUTeX Digital Capability Practice to address digital capability across three competency domains;

  • Digital Citizenship: Base competencies for a digitally fit workforce at all levels of the enterprise.
  • Digital Transformation: Advanced competencies to manage digital investment and transformation as well as manage the data-enabled enterprise.
  • Digital Leadership: Executive competencies to lead digital enterprises including strategy, ethics, and trust in the digital age as well as a focus on digital risk and governance.

Education is of course not a panacea for digital transformation success, however, digital competencies are key to future ways of working and digital leadership competencies are certainly key to effective digital governance.

For further reading, download the QUTeX INSIGHTS whitepaper: Why Digital Governance Matters: A Critical Role in our Digital Future

 

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Professor Malcolm Thatcher is a Professor of Digital Practice in the QUT Graduate School of Business. Professor Thatcher is a career technologist and has held senior executive leadership positions in both the public-sector and the private-sector. Professor Thatcher has over 35 years’ experience in leading and delivering business value through technology-led innovation and transformation. In 2018, Professor Thatcher published a book on Digital Risk and Governance titled The Digital Governance Handbook for CEOs and Governing Boards, which regularly features in Amazon’s best seller list under Corporate Governance.

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