Digital Transformation and Fundamental Change

I’m a huge supporter of modernizing government IT practices, but there’s something apocolyptic about the rhetoric of “digital transformation” folks which I cannot quite wrap my head around. Maybe it’s because I’m on the outside looking in, so I cannot perceive the cultural problems that they see.

To me, the message that “we have to fundamentally change how the public service operates” seems like a recapitulation, at the organizational and leadership level, of the worst mistake of old school IT: the old system is no good, we need a brand new system.

Back in the early aughts, when I was a fluffy young IT boffin, and discovered open source software, I was pretty sure we were on the cusp of a radical and immediate transformation: the open source model was so self-evidently better that a culture change would necessarily flow through IT.

Here we are, coming up on 20 years later and… things are still slowly getting better?

There was no radical change, the overall culture of IT slowly changed, and the things that I once had to argue loudly for – agile development (we called it RAD), GitHub (we called it open development), open source (OK, we called it that too) – are now accepted as somewhat normal practices.

Government culture will change because the rest of the culture is also changing. Sure, government is heirarchical. It used to be a whole lot more heirarchical as were the post-WW2 corporate and military cultures it co-existed with.

Small organizations are getting flat and more agile. Larger ones are following along at their own pace. As the largest of the organizations, government sometimes runs slowest. The challenge is to speed up the pace of change without breaking the beast.

I don’t see how a message like “we have to fundamentally change how the public service operates” isn’t going to give rise to a lot of push-back from people who aren’t necessarily opposed in principal to digital, but who are surely opposed in practice to being talked down to.

At the same time, for people inclined to support digital, it implies a manichean, “year zero” approach to change that is fundamentally unrealistic. With lots of institutional support and political backing and always the best of intentions among civil servants, a more digital government will arrive in 10 years instead of 20.