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Sergio Jiménez: Pandemic was the moment of truth for governments’ digitization

Interviews Analytics Government

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Published September 7, 2021

Sergio Jiménez: Pandemic was the moment of truth for governments' digitization

Maciej Zawadziński: How would you define modern citizens? What differentiates them from the kinds of citizens that preceded them? What do modern citizens expect from interactions with the public sector?

Sergio Jiménez: Current citizens are the fruit of a 30 or 40 year-long process. We can’t understand them without a reference to the early 80s and managerial revolution developed by liberal conservative governments, which has spread as a new paradigm. 

In the previous period (1950-1970, more or less), the citizen had been viewed as a consumer who should be satisfied in two key dimensions: economy (cheaper public service for a taxpayer) and quality (as individuals happy with the individual outcome). This is, I think, a non-negotiable focus for almost all governments and electors in democratic systems, at least as a concept. The problem is the definition of the length and depth of government (who and how should be covered, who are the main targets of public services), but not as a philosophy. 

After this, in the 90s and the first years of 2000, we had a new wave of transformation asking for a larger participation in defining the policies and services but without renouncing the previous aspirations. In this context, the rise of the Internet has been the perfect answer to all these questions: much more information, bidirectional communication, and economies of scale to improve services. 

Finally (well, not finally, but up to this point), after the 2008 crisis and with the GAFA companies and data economies treated as a new paradigm, government is a target of a new set of demands: innovation, prediction and certitude in decision-making. If Google or Amazon can suggest to us what to read or buy, how couldn’t governments answer to the needs of their citizens similarly? 

Obviously, these are big concepts, and government is a large ship. It’s sturdy and hard to sink, but slow enough to make big changes. We can say that most people consider their governments as not efficient and their services as not satisfying enough. There is no great transparency and participation. Innovation is some kind of sci-fi stuff or, at best, aimed at military and national security. But if we take a look at what citizens were receiving at the beginning of those eras and what they are getting now, the changes are large and relevant. This doesn’t mean we should be satisfied. As the market changes by innovation and new products, government and public services change by citizens’ demands.

We can say that most people consider their governments as not efficient and their services as not satisfying enough. There is no great transparency and participation.

– Sergio Jiménez

Maciej Zawadziński: Public sector officials have talked about “digitization” for some time now. How would you describe the current state of public sector digitization? Have some significant steps been made? Or are we still at the beginning of the journey? What are the areas that the public sector is focusing on?

Sergio Jiménez: Well, there are several approaches to digitization, depending on the political and institutional context of each country or region. We have some countries (mostly Anglo-Saxons) with a focus on common law and a more market-focused public service aimed at the final service and a customer. On the other hand, countries of public law and large public sectors such as Spain or France have to work hard in the legal area and implement a very important series of structural changes. 

There are, of course, some common areas. For example, websites are important interface for citizenship everywhere, especially for businesses and enterprises that want to make their administrative transactions. This involves digital records and some kind of digital identity (again, we are working with a very large variation of values and political cultures) with different grades of completion and integration.   

In any case, I think there is a more common approach when we talk about business and economy. We’re either talking about red tape for business, or we talk about public procurement as a way to consolidate a more dynamic market, especially in the EU.

Maciej Zawadziński: There’s this LinkedIn joke that pandemic lockdowns were the biggest force speeding up the process of digitization of all sorts of businesses. Does the same apply to the public sector? In which ways has the pandemic boosted public sector migration into the digital space?

Sergio Jiménez: Yes, we can see the pandemic as the moment of truth for governments. Those who have worked somehow in this area, have adapted with the resources they had. There are governments who have worked a lot with technology and innovation and have created great and interesting projects to inform and manage the world in lockdown. Some other countries who have worked in human capital or infrastructure have pivoted in those areas. 

So we have, in the best scenario, organizations with a particular approach, more or less developed. But this was a full-length crisis, therefore, we cannot answer with a partial response. Those who had state-of-the-art end services, have had to work toward integration and full back-office transactions. The ones who had created large infrastructures for record management, had to create spaces for interaction with a large capacity to answer demand peaks. And all of them, without almost any exception, had to change to telework, which was not a standard procedure for most of the countries. 

So, I think most of the countries have been “fine”, considering the magnitude of the change and the catastrophic context of the pandemic. This doesn’t mean it was good enough, that’s up to the citizens to answer. But it could be really worse for almost every instance in the government and public sector. 

Anyway, I would keep two or three main insights. First, we can have our preferences to deal with changes, but at the end of the day, we need to touch all the key areas to get the job done, and the pandemic has shown us this. No matter if you have been working in the back-office for years, eventually you’ll need to touch the front office, integration, identity, and all the other aspects, and governments, somehow procrastinate with large changes. 

Second, large changes are just possible with the implication, dedication and good will of everyone. In this case, solidarity and engagement made it all possible. I think that, for the future, any digitization project should involve hard work to get this kind of collaboration to achieve their goals. 

And finally, this is maybe the less optimistic one –  the pandemic is a very specific circumstance, as we have seen in many large corporations that rely on telework. What we had before (partially developed governments, no telework structure) are not accidents but a result of a concrete philosophy which is likely to remain the same after the crisis. If you see which companies (or countries) are going back to the office or in-person services, you will see they had a similar pattern before 2020. On the other hand, the ones who had, at least, some work done for these areas, are likely to keep the changes after the pandemic. This means, accidents (even huge ones) can change a little, but not the destiny, which is the fruit of will and philosophy. These can change, obviously, the world won’t be the same for us. But it will take time and the development of new ideas to link this new context with the previous beliefs and principles of the system.

There are governments who have worked a lot with technology and innovation and have created great and interesting projects to inform and manage the world in lockdown.

Sergio Jimenez

Maciej Zawadziński: Data is important for every organization building an online presence. Where is the public sector at with the adoption of online experience measurement and other data technologies?

Sergio Jiménez: As I said before, it depends a lot on the culture and philosophy of each country.  For example, the US or Great Britain, among others, are working very hard on getting a state-of-the-art model of digital service. This means specialized teams and a lot of data analysis, A-B testing, user surveys and ad-hoc studies. These have also worked in common frameworks of design (at federal-central level) which could allow getting common insights and improvements for the whole system. 

On the other hand, the countries with a continental approach are struggling a bit with this question. This is not really different to the other services (in-person or telephonic ones) where there is also no culture of measurement or improvement and user-centric analysis. In this case, I think, the use of data is really more related with the workload, cost of transaction and savings. More economic approach is hard to distinguish for the user as the citizen. 

I have a little optimism, because the technologies are there. They’re not used because of the notion of citizens as a passive part of the public service, rather than its real center. But, in any case, there are more voices and interest and I guess with a little more time, we should be watching some kind of changes, at least, in some areas or clusters (for example, healthcare or economic subsidies).

Maciej Zawadziński: One of our clients, the Government of the Netherlands, successfully uses analytics data to optimize the content of their website. Can you share some other examples of public sector successes in the digital space? 

Sergio Jiménez: I really like the approach of the US federal government, with two different actors: US Digital Service, and 18 F. They are working with different approaches and areas, but getting great results with the UX. Also, they are sharing a hub of data from web analytics, very helpful to understand how people are using services and which is really useful to get ideas to improve. 

Also, the Government Digital Service from the UK is doing a constant job, using information of digital use and the value of the services. I think they have a very interesting focus and ideas. Denmark has also created a single portal architecture based on a simple identification system, which I personally like a lot

There are plenty of good services, also in the local government, all around the world. But it’s always hard to distinguish what is good and what we do like as design and concept. This doesn’t mean they are working at all, because, as I have said, not all political cultures tolerate or expect the same. 

A really successful service in Canada could maybe not work at all in France and vice versa. That’s why every government and public organization should try to discover by themselves if what they think their users like is what they really do want.

Sergio Jimenez is a consultant specialized in helping public administrations in their path to digital transformation. To get there, he studied political science at the Institute of Political Studies of Paris, and at the University Complutense of Madrid, where he got his PhD with a dissertation about digital outcomes in bureaucratic infrastructures. He also worked as a software designer for public administrations and as a project manager for a technological consulting firm.

In 2013, he received the Achievement Award in Web Intelligence from the University of British Columbia and the University of California, Irvine. He launched the blog Analitica Pública, where he aims to analyze, explain and divulge practices for creating value for citizens. He looks at all kinds of governments and administrations. It has become one of the most influential Spanish-language blogs about analytics in the public sector.

After that, he began to work as a consultant with various administrations at the national, regional and local levels. He was involved in projects touching on numerous topics,  such as website design, transparency, methodology frameworks, and digital analytics. He is also a professor at Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, University Complutense and National Institute of Public Administration (INAP). Recently he got certified as a data analyst at the University of Toronto.

He is the author of Does my public administration’s website work? Guide to digital analytics for public administrations, and Digital transformation for public administrations: creating value for citizenship in the XXIst century, both edited by INAP.

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Maciej Zawadziński

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Technology enthusiast and entrepreneur. Passionate about analytics and marketing technology. LinkedIn Profile

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