Is technology really changing the public sector?

Technology is everywhere: on our desks, in our pockets, in our hands, you name it. We as human beings make use of technology on a daily basis, whether we realize it or not. Organizations in the private, public or voluntary sectors are using technology in its various forms to provide services and improve their performance.

However, being so prevalent has a major setback: it makes people accept technology as it is without critically questioning its premises, functionalities and most importantly its impacts. What the impacts of technology are, whom it affects, in what ways and how much are key questions that the scientific community has yet to manage to keep up, despite growing interest across disciplines. Given technology’s multiple facets, a good understanding of its impacts requires sound interdisciplinary research.

Dr. Sorin Dan is a postdoctoral researcher within the InnoLab research platform at the University of Vaasa, Finland, working on public sector innovation and renewal.

Perhaps one of the most discussed types of technology these days is digital technology. Closely related to digital technology is the idea of transformation – many claim that digital technology has a transformative effect on organizations. In other words, the claim is that digitalization does not just change organizations, but that it actually transforms them radically. Whether this is the case or not, however, is a matter of scientific research rather than a simple assumption. This is particularly the case for public sector organizations, which compared to businesses are slower to react to and implement radical change given that they serve citizens with various needs rather than clients who seek to get the most for their money.

Truth-seeking scientists cannot ignore the widespread talk that digital technologies are transforming public sector organizations. A simple Google search for the keyword ‘digital transformation’ yields as of 20 June 2019 a fabulous 434 million hits in less than 0.44 seconds! However, studies have shown the opposite. For example, a recent study funded by the European Commission, entitled Blockchain for digital government: An assessment of pioneering implementations in public services, found that “blockchain has not yet demonstrated itself to be neither transformative nor a disruptive form of innovation for government, as it is sometimes portrayed. Ongoing projects can be seen to bring incremental, rather than fundamental, changes to operational capacities; although some clear value for citizens may be generated by adopting these technologies.”

Moreover, in a review of digital transformation in the U.S. Federal Government, Ines Mergel found that an emphasis on technology and individual projects hampered systemic transformation. Instead of digitizing existing processes, the Federal Government should have fundamentally rethought how to transform processes holistically considering the institutional and organizational limitations. Similarly, institutional factors such as ineffective information flow within government, across government agencies and between the government and the public due to legal restrictions and inflexible reporting structures are found to further influence transformation.

Clearly, ‘digital transformation’ and its more aggressive friend ‘disruptive technologies’, are buzzwords that sell well. Nonetheless, the evidence that digital technologies are in effect significantly changing public sector organizations is scarce and thus far limited. At most, the evidence points to incremental change – organizations are slowly becoming more efficient and effective and better attuned to service users’ needs. Scott Brinker put it very well: Technology changes exponentially, organizations change logarithmically.

  • You can hear more about Sorin’s thoughts on this topic at the Wasa Future Festival on August 9th, 2019, where his speech is called “Is technology radically changing the public sector?”. The festival will be held in Vaasa, Finland.

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