The public sector plays by different rules. Unlike the private sector, where customer service and differentiation by excellence are mandatory for survival, the public sector has a de facto monopoly on the services that it delivers.

If a citizen has a negative experience, they don’t have any choice but to return and try again the next day. This means that there is a schism of trust between the citizen and the money they pay for service delivery, and the public sector departments that deliver these services.

Jon Tullett, associate research director: IT services and cloud at IDC sub-Saharan Africa, points out that trust is a fundamental driver for government departments because this is what constituents expect.

“People expect the services to be available, that they are functioning, and this expectation packs a great deal of complexity,” he explains. “Whether those expecting the services are citizens or working within other government departments, or employees – they’re becoming more demanding over time and governments across sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and Turkey know that digital transformation has to become a fundamental discipline within the public sector, not just a technology refresh.”

The time for ad-hoc improvement has passed. Now, the public sector must focus on a formal process and a disciplined approach that measures investment and transformation over time. This means having clear goals and tangible metrics and an aggressive approach to ensuring that citizen expectations are met.

“With trust held as the focal point, of course, one of the key elements that must be addressed is transparency,” says Tullett. “This is fast becoming an expectation and would mark a significant change for the sector as the traditional view is that each department is the arbiter of its processes and expertise within its specific domain. Now, there has to be more cross-pollination with other departments within the public sector and with private sector organisations to achieve the results that citizens expect.”

However, there are still some limitations when it comes to government departments, spending and maturity. At least 40% of public sector departments are in a reactive space – delivering against specific IT expectations but unable to innovate. They have a measure of flexibility and agility, but they don’t have what’s required to move the services deeper. In some cases, there are serious hurdles to overcome.

“Almost a third of government CIOs still have 50% of their infrastructure sitting in the ten-year plus age bracket,” says Tullett. “That’s a real challenge. At least 10% of these departments have 90% of their infrastructure at least that old. They’re hamstrung by the lack of investment. It’s frustrating to talk to these CIOs who are genuinely motivated by transformation and efficiency improvement and to see how much they’re struggling to get the right digital infrastructure in place.”

That said, there are pockets of innovation where CIOs have taken digital to the next level despite infrastructural challenges. There are opportunities, even within the constraints, and there is the belief that if the CIO has some breathing room to execute, they can innovate in remarkable ways across teams and collaboration.

Tullett adds that there has been investment into migration to third-party managed service providers that are healthy and are providing the expertise that the sector requires to live more flexibly within the cloud.

“A lot of this is being driven by a push towards right-sizing and right-scaling and will likely accelerate, but this had to be done right as there are concerns,” he warns. “There are some emerging areas that show promise but sustainability has to remain a priority, not just in South Africa where energy constraints are attached to the operating environment.

“It’s important to have conversations that elevate the sustainability considerations to the decision-making level so that operational transformation goes hand-in-hand with making the right choices for the environment.”

A key focus for public sector CIOs also pies in automation as this aligns with making citizen service delivery a priority. Governments, constrained by budgets and resources, have to look at comparative processes in neighbouring governments to refine these investments and to embed best practices within these tight confines.

“And it works,” concludes Tullett. “The results of digital transformation projects can be astounding. Transaction times and operating costs have come down by 25% or more, and service delivery has improved and outcomes are achieved. While many of these benefits are not yet felt locally, the lesson here is for the public sector to collaborate with the right service providers and third-party suppliers to deliver meaningful change to systems and processes. And this collaboration needs to be underpinned by transparency to rebuild and maintain citizen trust.”