Mention digital transformation in the public sector and most people’s minds will go straight to consumer-facing digital products and services.

By Greg Gatherer, account manager at Liferay Africa

That’s completely understandable too. Most people’s frustrations with the parts of the public sector they deal with directly – vehicle licensing, identity documents and passport renewal, for example – could be solved with effective digital transformation.

But real digital transformation that results in effective service delivery is far more complex than simply implementing customer-facing technologies. It requires the adoption of digital technologies and processes across the organisation and, critically, a mindset that embraces these changes. In order for that to happen in any organisation, employees need to feel digitally empowered. In fact, research from IDC shows that organisations that invest in digital transformation (DX) technologies in 2020 enjoyed a 20% increase in employee productivity.

There’s no doubt that the public sector could benefit from such an increase as much as any other industry. In fact, it may even be more important in some regards. A digitally transformed public sector is not only more accessible, it can also be less of a burden on the fiscus, allowing the state to allocate more resources to service delivery and development. Achieving that scenario simply isn’t possible if employees in the sector aren’t digitally empowered themselves.

One bite at a time

On the face of it, digitally empowering public sector employees can seem like a massive challenge. In South Africa, for example, the state is the biggest employer with more than a million people working in the public sector.

Those employees range from elected officials and civil servants to teachers, police officers, and healthcare professionals. They also range in age from being on the verge of retirement (65 years old) to young graduates just starting out in the workforce. As such, getting an overall sense of how digitally empowered they are is all but impossible. We do, however, know that there are some glaring weak points. In 2021, for example, it was revealed that 62% of municipal councillors lacked the basic computer skills needed to pass municipal budgets.

It’s also concerning that research from the National Electronic Media Institute of South Africa published at the end of 2020 shows that managers in government, however, are quite sceptical about the need for future digital technologies in government compared with other sectors and that most managers do not conduct digital skills audits at all. Given South Africa’s stated fourth industrial revolution (4IR) ambitions, the government should be a leader in digital transformation.

The crucial thing to remember when it comes to turning this around is that digital transformation isn’t really about massive overhauls and radical skills development. It’s an ongoing process where technologies and skills are built on top of each other. Building up basic, relevant skills among public sector employees can go a long way to improving their ability to do their jobs.

Using the right technology

And while digital transformation is obviously about more than adopting technology, it can play a crucial role in ensuring that public sector employees feel digitally empowered. A protected, customised intranet, for example, can enable employees to find the information they need when they need it. Secure, modern intranets help employees better manage their benefits and career planning, allowing for higher satisfaction and better employee retention.

The same is true for self-service portals. A digital experience platform (DXP) can make delivering both intranets and self-service portals simpler by connecting together previously disparate back-end systems.

Public sector organisations can also use a shared solution development approach for common service parts by utilising open-source platforms. This allows them to fit together the pieces which suit their needs and simply develop the extra elements required. Such an approach also means that organisations can re-use work already carried out by others and that government departments can pool resources to carry out pieces of work and offer them back to the rest of the public sector for re-use and recycling.

It’s also critical, however, that public sector employees aren’t just empowered with regards to the technologies they use on a daily basis. They also need to regularly interact with the technologies that ordinary citizens use to access government services. In doing so, they put themselves in a much better position to understand the frustrations faced by citizens and to make suggestions for improvements to IT and management teams.

A critical shift in mindset

But in order for this empowerment to happen, there clearly needs to be a shift in mindset, particularly at the management level. It’s critical that it happens too. While I’m under no illusions that digital transformation and empowerment is a cure-all for South Africa’s service delivery issues, it will make a difference. And in a country where the perceived quality of service delivery is even lower than expectations (which were at five-year lows in 2021), that matters.