Transforming the public sector

Q&A | August 31, 2023

Transforming the public sector

Providing better service to citizens is imperative for government agencies and other public organizations. Technology can help

Companies are more focused than ever on providing seamless, digitally enabled experiences to their customers and employees alike. They recognize that getting work done should be a simple, intuitive, and transparent process, such as ordering a ride through an app. That hasn’t always been the case when it comes to governments and other public sector entities. In fact, forthcoming research by ServiceNow and ThoughtLab found that government is among the least mature sectors when it comes to experience. Most public sector leaders interviewed (52%) said keeping up with changing expectations is their biggest challenge.

It doesn’t have to be that way, argues Dr. Raj Iyer, ServiceNow’s global head of public sector and former chief information officer for the U.S. Army. By accelerating digital transformation and tapping into the potential of emerging technologies like generative AI (GenAI), public sector leaders can change perceptions and increase the mission impact they have on the citizens they serve, Iyer says.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length. 


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For consumers, digital transformation has always been about choice. How are you, as a consumer, empowered to make decisions leveraging data in real time? Take Uber, for example. Before you book a trip, you can see where the car is, how much it will cost, and how long it will take to arrive. When you look at services governments provide, whether it’s Social Security, public health, or unemployment, they’re very much driven by analog processes that are dependent on paper forms. The expectation is that you, as a citizen, will need to go to an office and stand in line if you need to get anything done. Out of necessity, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted governments to enable citizens to do more online. All too often, though, all they’ve created is a digital intake mechanism. You might be able to make a request on an agency’s website, but trying to understand where you are in the process or how long it might be before you’re serviced is still very much a black box. We can empower citizens by using technology to give them the same level of visibility with their service requests as they’re accustomed to receiving as consumers. Citizens don’t want to be exposed to bureaucracy; they expect a simple digital experience that hides the complexity. At the end of the day, the goal is for the public sector to offer a better citizen experience. 

One of the simplest examples is building more intelligence into chatbots. Up until very recently, chatbots weren’t very helpful or powerful at all. Anytime I would go to a website and a chatbot would come up, I would just hit the X button and kill it because I didn't trust that it would do anything useful. But today, I use them all the time because it's so much easier than scouring the entire site for the information I want. Governments should be taking advantage of generative AI capabilities like chatbots, or risk being left behind. There’s a real opportunity to improve the citizen experience by providing better-tailored, richer, context-sensitive content that protects the privacy and security of the platform. It’s an especially rich opportunity because the amount of content many government agencies have is massive. The people inside these organizations also stand to benefit immensely. The military, in particular, is famous for having huge volumes of data and information with no efficient way for an individual to ingest it all or to present it in an easily consumable form. Chatbots could make a big difference by generating new content or responses in real time. You don’t have to wait five to 10 years from now. Everything you do should be looking to see how you can leverage GenAI to determine how you can deliver impactful solutions.


of public sector leaders say changing expectations is their biggest experience challenge

I'm a big believer that bureaucracy can actually be put to good use. It's often used as an excuse for nothing happening. But digital transformation is all about culture change, and bureaucracies are really good at bringing about enduring change. Governments have operated the way they have for hundreds of years, and we need to operate in a respectful way that’s not disruptive to the history and heritage of the establishment. We must ensure that we build change management into the implementation of the platform. The problem is it takes time and patience. That’s actually a good thing! You don't want to make a quick decision, only to find you don’t have the buy-in that you need to marshal the entire enterprise behind you. One of my biggest learnings from my last job as CIO for the U.S. Army was that moving fast doesn’t always give you enduring, long-term results. Sometimes moving slowly up front and building consensus can give you massive momentum. Once you build it up, you can actually go much faster.

Digital transformation is all about democratization. My job as a CIO was never to be the person to do everything. I was the chief “inspiration” officer. It’s about how we bring everybody along, show them the art of the possible, and put the tools in their hands. When you do that, you can achieve massive momentum at scale, even though the first few weeks, months, or even years might be pretty hard. And I think that's why we must never underestimate the power of the bureaucracy, because when they are behind it, when they get it, things will happen much, much faster than anything else. 


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