We, the Digital People

Being focused on government customers and technology for over 20 years, I recently decided to return to college to complete a degree in Political Science. My daily work keeps me immersed in digital government, and at night I’m now going back in history, learning about the ideas and beliefs of our Founding Fathers when they formed our country. The differences between my days and nights are fascinating and have me thinking how our Founding Fathers would feel about digital government.

Our country was founded on the belief that our government is one of the people, for the people, and by the people. Many of the ideas that formed the basis of our Constitution came from English philosopher John Locke, including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. Locke believed that the entire purpose of government is to protect individual liberty and property. The Founding Fathers believed that not only are individuals free and equal, but that we have a public responsibility and personal stake in fostering a better society. Today, digital government is allowing this to happen at a rapid pace – by allowing people to virtually collaborate and quickly solve many societal issues our government has been struggling with. There are great examples in our digital world of people forming virtual groups or organizations to help reduce traffic congestion, initiate environmental improvement projects, and drive funding for important educational projects.

Our Founding Fathers were also concerned that our freedoms would be at risk if left in the hands of the majority, so they established America as a democracy based on republicanism, where citizens elect representatives to make important decisions for us; our Executive Branch fulfills these important promises to the people. This is the primary purpose of our government, yet many agencies continually rely on antiquated, failing systems to deliver on that promise. There is a large divide between the people who understand technology and the people responsible for addressing our society’s toughest issues. Digital government can provide a better way to deliver citizen services. It can provide the opportunity to have an enormous impact in representing the priorities of the people by engaging through more direct and personalized communication channels, while creating a collaborative environment between program missions and technology.

"There is a large divide between the people who understand technology and the people responsible for addressing our society’s toughest issues."

The methods in which people want to connect with their government have drastically changed, yet the siloed structure of our government remains exactly the same. As my colleague, Pega Public Sector Business Line Leader Thom Rubel, wrote in his blog The U.S. Federal Approach: Outside In or Inside Out, citizens view government as one government. They do not view government through a spectrum or collection of different agencies.

A recent Accenture report, titled, “Digital Government: Pathways to Delivering Public Services for the Future” (January, 2014) echoed this sentiment, stating, “Citizens selected understanding the priorities of citizens and communities better (34 percent) as their top priority for improving public services for the future. This clearly demonstrates that a majority…believe their governments do not understand or give enough importance to their needs, conditions and requirements.” The report found “citizens want their governments to engage in a more consultative process with them more regularly to understand their needs and expectations better, and to design and deliver customized services to meet these needs”.

The move to digital government makes sense for many reasons, but if we don’t take a strategic approach, many of the same vexing challenges at hand – disjointed customer experiences, complicated systems and ineffective responses – may simply be repeated, or even exacerbated. Unfortunately, as government has tried to embrace the digital revolution, traditional technology has fallen short because it forces agencies to think big and start big. Massive software projects have led to massive failures, largely because these projects take so long. By the time projects are implemented the needs of the agency and constituents have changed, and the resulting solution is inadequate. Government agencies need to take a different approach—one that enables them to think big, but start small, and accelerate the digital journey in manageable phases.

The digital revolution is happening now. “The People” have been leveraging digital government to uphold our end of our country’s social contract to promote better community and help to solve those issues which impact the entire population. The result: people have greater expectations of government to uphold their side of the social contract and follow through by being more responsive to issues important to the people. I believe our Founding Fathers would encourage government agencies to join this revolution. Leveraging the promise of digital government would enable them to better represent citizens and help ensure the protection of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

We’ll hit on digital government more on April 24 at a free, educational webinar with GovLoop, “The Future of Digital Public Service”. The session will feature Lisa Schlosser, Deputy Associate Administrator for the Office of E-Government and Information Technology, Office of Management and Budget; Accenture Federal Systems; and my colleague Thom Rubel. It will explore a new, collaborative approach to enable government agencies to improve customer engagement while simplifying operations, and allow for constituents and partners to directly interact with government.