6 Considerations for Sustainable Public Sector Digital Transformation

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To safeguard residents against digital-related risks, cities must undergo a proactive, inclusive public sector digital transformation process.

The lack of digital preparedness has made many cities testbeds for new and often unregulated technologies. In response, local authorities often need to ‘catch up’ to the constantly metamorphosing technology industry. This involuntary reactivity has placed many urban settlements and their residents in a position of vulnerability, which has manifested in delayed and/or inadequate responses to large-scale data misuses, mass disinformation, and detrimental cybercrimes. To safeguard its residents against digital-related risks, cities must engage in a proactive, inclusive public sector digital transformation process. A robust smart city governance framework is needed. The strategy needs to be resilient to shifting political tides, adaptable to changing technological landscapes, and responsive to rising resident needs. There necessities comprehensive and complimentary short-term and long-term public sector digital transformation strategies that can set the vision while ensuring operationality in present terms.

It is undeniable that digital transformation is a highly complex initiative, especially for the public sector. As such, there needs to be comprehensive organizational analysis sand introspection.

Often, a seemingly intact challenge needs to be disintegrated to uncover its root causes. Each element will necessitate cohesive yet distinct interventions to create lasting change. This requires a complete ecosystem mapping exercise with value-added components for each milestone within the overlaying strategy.

Since most industries, sectors, and domains within the urban sphere are indispensable from technological connectivity, the impact and implications of digital technologies should be seen as a cross-cutting affair that requires link-decentralized collaboration. Much to each subnational strategy’s economic and social consideration, digital transformation and digital responsibility can be addressed through a sectoral/subnational lens and be articulated as a core component of its associated strategy document. These individualized ingredients should adhere to a national strategy that aligns subnational elements with the overarching political discourse. The strategic outlook should utilize design thinking instruments and be a re-iterative, dynamic process that can effectively evolve per structured feedback mechanisms.

Digitalization and digitization are interrelated concepts that are core to an effective public sector digital transformation strategy. The former refers to leveraging digital technologies to advance business models and processes. The latter refers to converting physical information, such as physical files, into a digital format. Both aspects need to incorporate and standardize human-centrism during its ideation and implementation processes. To this end, a number of factors should be taken into consideration:

  1. Before digital transformation, the urban challenge needs to be defined and structured. Notably, digital is not the end-all-be-all and when applied uncritically, it may exacerbate inequalities. To implement effective solutions, it is crucial to uncover the root causes of social challenges. This will rely heavily on localized knowledge and community engagement, so to ensure human-centrism in the digital transformation process.
  2. Due to the inherently biased data they train on, digital mechanisms are not neutral-by-default. There is a need to ensure that the transformation process actively addresses pre-existing prejudice within society.
  3. In addition to managerial expertise, internal capacity building, and interagency knowledge sharing, dedicated human capital and technical resources are needed for effective transformation processes. To the end, there needs be offices with a clear mandate of strategizing the overarching digital transformation process.
  4. Public sector digital transformation is not a procedure solely internal to an administration. It is a collaborative process that requires buy-in from all relevant stakeholders. People-centered smart cities need to be devised with a multi-stakeholder approach that realizes sustainability, inclusivity, prosperity, and human rights for the benefit of all.
  5. The emergence of ICT is accompanied by tools, languages, and methodologies that require internal capacity transformation and knowledge sharing. The ability to adapt to a rapidly changing external environment can only be accomplished with an active feedback loop that aims to improve internal mechanisms. There needs to be a cross-agency culture shift.
  6. The digital transformation process needs to be both robust and flexible. It should be resilient to internal socio-political dynamic shifts but adaptive to rapidly changing external environments. Short-term strategies need to be accompanied by long-term visions. Revisions based on pre-structured feedback mechanisms are crucial to success.
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