No Match Found
A government wanting to improve how its policy is implemented cannot escape the need to improve its digital infrastructure. This calls for more central control and a stronger political mandate. The forthcoming government formation is the right time to make agreements on this and to set a temporary investment budget. But the biggest challenge is found in the organisation itself, not the budgets.
These are the conclusions of PwC specialists Selwyn Moons, and Timo Kruijt, who all have a strong track record in public sector transformation and digitalisation projects.
The quality of how government policy is implemented occupies a high position on the government's administrative and political agenda. This is in response to problems among the implementing organisations (the worst example being the benefits scandal at the Tax and Customs Administration). Failures in the implementation of government policy jeopardise public services and greatly reduce public confidence.
'The goal is to have an organisation that every citizen and company can go to for questions and solutions. That is key to making it politically attractive. Digitalisation is a tool.'
The implementation problems cannot be explained solely by overdue maintenance and development in the digital infrastructure. Various reports also identify causes in political compromises that translate into laws that are difficult to enforce. And then there is the low tolerance in society and politics to mistakes and failures, which results in a strong tendency to 'overregulate'. But none of this alters the fact that backing up implementation with better digital support forms at least part of the solution.
It cannot be said that nothing has happened regarding digital government in recent years, says Timo Kruijt. ‘All sorts of things have been set in motion, and the House of Representatives is also looking at matters such as privacy, cybersecurity, algorithms and digital inclusiveness. However, despite all the advice and strategies over the past few years, it sometimes remains difficult to see the big picture. As things stand, there does not appear to be anyone ultimately responsible for coordinating all the various plans and ambitions. The Generic Digital Infrastructure (GDI) is a good example of how the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations is setting out to coordinate the various scenarios and ambitions.’
Selwyn Moons, Partner Public Sector at PwC
Selwyn Moons also points to the tendency of ministries to make their own choices rather than working together. The way they see it, this can only be overcome if the top echelons of the ministries work together more.
Moons: ‘PwC has assisted with digital transformations at large companies, where the management boards are very closely involved. They are members of the steering committees and are regularly updated on progress, sometimes weekly. The responsibility lies at the top of the organisation.’
‘We often see in the public sector that the responsibility is placed in the IT department. But in fact it is the top echelons of the ministries that should take ownership: they are the ones with the power to take measures, and it shows that this is being given priority. For a government-wide organisation, a committee of secretaries-general could be considered.’
Selwyn Moons: 'The political mandate could also be stronger. It is no bad thing that responsibility for IT policy has already been assigned to a single ministerial post: the State Secretary for the Interior and Kingdom Relations. But that minister has a swathe of other duties in addition to the central government's IT policy. It would be better if this State Secretary had just one focal point and regularly updated the cabinet on it.'
In their work for the government, Moons and Kruijt have found that ministries are starting to suffer from 'IT fatigue'. They noticed this when digital ambitions and plans were being formed. This should come as no surprise when we consider some serious and expensive past failures (leading to the establishment of the Elias parliamentary inquiry committee), but IT will form part of virtually all policy areas in the future.
It is also worth noting is that when big projects start, everyone has a finger in the pie. Moons: ‘Of course it is important for all stakeholders to be involved, but I feel that things could be organised more efficiently: everyone should take part, but only on the points that concern them.'
This underlines the importance of finding a way to encourage – or even incentivise – ministerial organisations to take a bold, courageous approach to major digitalisation projects. Selwyn Moons would like to see ministries rewarded for their performance in this area.
'Digitalisation ultimately means being able to do more with less manpower and resources. That will leave more money in the long run, which under the current budget rules will go back to the Ministry of Finance. I feel that successfully transforming ministries should be able to keep some of that budget to implement other policy wishes. The political and administrative top echelons taking control is the stick, but there must also be a carrot.'
Digitalisation must therefore be given a higher administrative priority and organised more intelligently at the lower levels. This calls for an additional transition budget. Investing in IT for government services is not popular or a vote-winner.
What people want is more police on the streets and nurses in the wards. The aspiration for a better digital system does not go nearly far enough. Another problem is that the risks associated with IT projects are a hot topic in politics. The election manifestos are focusing mainly on algorithms, supervision of data use and transparency. Would politicians be willing to release funds for an additional transition budget?
Selwyn Moons: ‘We are definitely seeing some momentum here. Everyone knows that investments are needed. I think there is broad enough support for making government more customer friendly, more accessible and more reliable. What's more, good IT does not make government more expensive in the long run because the benefits - more efficiency - are there as well. This is more about temporary investments than structural budgets.'
Timo Kruijt: ‘It isn't about IT systems, either. It’s mostly about inclusive government. The goal is to have an organisation that every citizen and company can go to for questions and solutions. That is key to making it politically attractive. Digitalisation is a tool.'