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Former Member

In my post on April 2 2015,  I proposed the following definition of digital government: digital government refers to the production and access to data, services and content, sourced and distributed across the digital ecosystem, to create public value.

This final phrase in the definition - to create public value, is the motivation for this post - form over fashion – or to put it another way, substance over style. The creation of public value requires an investment in initiatives with substance and form as opposed to quick fixes which may look good in the short term but end up like many things in the fashion industry, out of style and left in the cupboard.

This leads me to think about the trend towards government agencies adopting an agile start-up approach to promote innovation. Government is often regarded as conservative and slow in the innovation department. In the age of digital government there is a movement towards throwing away the suit, growing the hair, creating a Googleplex-like work environment and then innovating.    Like Silicon Valley before, our government agencies have the potential to become the next hotbeds of creativity stimulating a new wave of productivity growth. Sounds good until you realise that 90% of start-up companies fail (refer Forbes).  That’s 9 out of 10.  So how many government agencies, especially within countries where there is formal public scrutiny of public funds expenditure (i.e. most) would tolerate a 9 out of 10 failure rate from an agile ‘start-up’ approach to innovation?

I am reminded of a research project I was involved in a few years ago on the topic of social media adoption within social protection agencies.  I interviewed a European based organisation responsible for the age/retirement pension. They reported they had made the claim process for the pension available as an online service. When a person reached retirement age they could make a claim for the pension online in the comfort of their home without the need to visit a local office.  Unfortunately the take-up rate was very low – less than 10%. The obvious reasons for this could have been things like a poorly designed online experience, inability to complete the whole process online (e.g. paper documents to validate information still needed to be submitted by mail) or the target audience didn’t have access or capability to perform the task.  All of these reasons could have been valid but a question immediately came to mind, “Was this an appropriate process to put online? Had they done their research in terms of cresting value or had they fallen into a trap of putting a service online i.e. making it a digital process, to fulfil a government mantra of putting all services online?”

Reaching the statutory retirement age and claiming an age pension for people in many societies, is a significant life event. Perhaps the main reason for the poor take-up was that claiming the pension is an activity most people will only do once in their life. Going down to the local office to make the claim could have been an exercise in social capital (a valued social outing) rather than an inconvenient and mundane government process that needed to be streamlined. This was a distraction from the main point of the research so I never got to the bottom of what the real reasons were. But it serves as an example to highlight the importance of targeting digital government innovation where value is created. So was this a case of going for fashion over form (style over substance). We may never know but I am sure the organisation concerned wasn’t given the luxury of trying to fix this situation nine more times before achieving success. A survey of failed start-ups in the afore referenced Forbes article, determined that 42% of them identified the “lack of a market need for their product” as the single biggest reason for their failure.  The European pension claim example may fall into this category.

What is often overlooked is the fundamentals of government administration (prosper, provide and protect) carry on regardless of the technology enabled innovation occurring at the edges. The fail fast and agile development methods of the start-up community should be finding their way into the government operating model. The traditional methods of innovation creation are not delivering fast enough.  But they have to do this within a system of government that demands process, transparency and accountability in how public money is expended. The big issues and the wicked problems don’t go away no matter how much technology you throw at them and government needs to keep their eye on the main game (think refugees, war in the Middle East, youth unemployment, and poverty reduction).

Innovation needs to be systemic and process orientated to mitigate the risks (which clearly many start-ups choose to ignore) while realising the benefits. (refer McKinsey Quarterly -  the eight  essentials of innovation) Government should aim to have the structures and disciplines in place with a stretch target of a 9 out of 10 innovation success rate. The start-up community can perhaps then start to follow government’s example.

We love to hear from the innovators who succeed. Where would we all be without the innovations that have come from the start-up community?  But we never hear about the 90% who fail.  Unfortunately for those working inside government, if 90% of their innovation initiatives fail, we’ll all hear about it.  Let’s encourage our government agencies to be innovative and to change the ways they achieve this, but let’s not forget they have an important job to do in governing our communities which has to be failsafe. By relying on a definition of digital government anchored around the creation of public value, we may see more form and substance and less fashion and style in our digital government initiatives.

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