7 minute read 10 Jun 2021
Digitization of government and public sector

Are we moving towards the digital future of government and public sector organizations?

By Gaurav Taneja

EY India Government and Public Sector Leader and AIM Advisory Government and Public Sector Leader.

At the intersection of public policy, private sector and citizen service. Avid traveler. Football enthusiast.

7 minute read 10 Jun 2021

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  • Will Governments return to the past or nurture a digital future?

Embedding new technologies, operating models, behaviours and mindsets as part of standard practice will lead to a steep change in digital maturity in the government sector. 

The impact of the pandemic on governments have been profound as very few were well prepared to deal with the challenges created by this kind of an emergency. This served as a wake-up call to governments that had placed too much focus on daily operational needs at the expense of digital transformation. To cope up with the unprecedented pressure, we saw a dramatic acceleration in digital service delivery and interactions with citizens across many areas of government, from health care and social services to education, justice, taxation and political decision-making. In this context, EY’s latest report “Will Governments return to the past or nurture a digital future?highlights the importance of digital transformation and the pivotal role of an effective, inclusive and accountable government for a thriving digital economy.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has proved to be the biggest global disruptor to people’s lives since the end of World War II. The impact on governments has been profound and technology has been central to their responses. Many governments developed and implemented new digital solutions and service delivery models that were previously seen as too challenging, sometimes in a matter of days. According to the EY Connected Citizen survey, 80% government and public services have been effectively using digital technology to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in India. They seized the opportunity to stress test new digital solutions, many of which draw on “human augmentation” technologies such as AI, machine learning, robotics, blockchain, virtual reality and the internet of things (IoT).

The survey also reveals that 71% citizens in India anticipate making more use of technology in their daily lives than if the pandemic had not happened. They also expect this technology to improve many aspects of their lives such as online banking and retail, in improving the customer experience.

The report explores how governments can maintain the momentum for change, highlighting examples of those that are leading the charge. It provides recommendations on how to capture the wider benefits that digital transformation can bring to people and society over the long term by harnessing the efforts of three different groups - the center of government; individual agencies, departments and local government; and the wider societal ecosystem.

Government transformation to societal transformation

The role of the center of government

The center of government must create the enabling environment for a thriving digital economy, the right infrastructure, policies, regulations, technology platforms, etc., while also supporting individual government departments with their own transformation efforts.

  • Creating digital infrastructure and fostering inclusion: To promote the development of the digital state, governments will look to invest in and regulate for the creation of high-speed, reliable and robust digital infrastructure. Digital networks must support the universal provision of digital services by addressing often stark urban-rural and economic divides.
  • Driving whole-of-government transformation and collaboration: Most central governments have now developed a national digital strategy, often aligned with their national development strategy. These strategies help to ensure that individual departments invest in government-wide outcomes and promote interdepartmental and government-wide collaboration, rather than siloed solutions.
  • Facilitating seamless digital access to services: The center of government plays a crucial role in breaking down silos and achieving interoperability of different systems, databases and registers to provide one-stop access to public services. Governments must also create the means for citizens to access services through secure digital user identification and authentication systems. As national digital ID systems are rolled out, it is essential for governments to communicate clearly with citizens about benefits, and to address any concerns around privacy and security. The survey shows that 73% citizens surveyed in India are comfortable with having a single digital ID, that includes their details and the history of government service use.
  • Setting and enforcing policies, regulations and standards: As new technologies start to permeate all aspects of people’s lives, governments have a core responsibility to safeguard citizens’ basic rights, ensure fairness and protect against risks. Governments must include public engagement in their regulation-setting activities, given the ethical issues surrounding the use of algorithms in political decision-making and targeting of services. Building partnerships with international regulators to achieve common standards could also be a useful strategy.
  • Securing the right knowledge and talent: High-performing governments recognize the need to develop their workforce’s digital skills and capabilities in order to capitalize on the potential of technological advances. Exchange programs between the public and private sector present another way to build government capability.

The role of individual government departments, agencies and local governments

While central government policymakers create the national digital strategy and provide the right enabling environment, it falls to individual government departments, agencies and local government to make the necessary changes on the ground. The road map for digital transformation can be built around the following 10 actions:

  1. Align digital plans with overall vision and purpose
  2. Gain support from senior leaders
  3. Create appropriate organizational and governance structures
  4. Design better citizen experiences
  5. Adapt culture and working practices
  6. Build a flexible IT infrastructure
  7. Adopt an agile approach to delivery
  8. Build specialist digital skills and capabilities
  9. Encourage innovation and experimentation
  10. Monitor and evaluate progress

The role of the wider ecosystem

In an age of digital disruption and convergence, governments that act alone are no longer able to deliver the social and economic outcomes that citizens expect. The most progressive governments are proactive in harnessing the knowledge and resources of the wider ecosystem, including start-ups, SMEs, entrepreneurs, academia, civil society and citizens themselves, to source innovative digital solutions to public policy challenges. Their innovation agenda actively seeks out collaborations with third parties. Since the public purse will be even more constrained post-pandemic, these partnerships will be vital to help finance government’s capacity for service improvement.

  • Consult with stakeholders on new service design: In some cases, the launch of new government digital products and services relies on the participation or contribution of partners, end users or other external stakeholders.
  • Participate in innovation networks: Governments can foster innovation by building or participating in networks that bring together businesses, entrepreneurs, start-ups, finance companies, academics and civil society organizations. Through effective collaboration, they can co-develop solutions to strengthen competitiveness, improve economic outcomes and raise living standards.
  • Adopt new business models and GovTech solutions: Governments are increasingly looking to harness emerging and disruptive technology solutions developed by various players — notably start-ups and scale-ups, but also medium-sized and large enterprises, universities, non-profit organizations, social enterprises and citizens themselves — to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of public services.
  • Modernize procurement practices: The acceleration in the uptake of GovTech solutions will require changes to the established way governments procure technology and services. One option is to create a single, user-centric “digital marketplace” to simplify access to public tenders. Another is to adopt new procurement practices to help departments find more innovative solutions to support their transformation efforts.
  • Build data exchange platforms: Most governments and public authorities across the world have launched open data initiatives and set up data exchange platforms. The focus is on making data widely available to third parties, including citizens, to help develop solutions to complex problems, and to create greater transparency and accountability.
  • Engage citizens in co-production: Governments have traditionally been slow to engage citizens and stakeholders in the development of new services, in contrast to private sector companies. But citizens have a major role to play as a source of fresh ideas to reinvigorate the public sector. Governments have also sought to harness the skills and knowledge of citizens and local communities to ease some of the burden and help build resilience during the pandemic.

COVID-19 has truly rewritten all the rules in the book for governments. In the months and years to come, as we reflect on the digital response to the pandemic, few leaders in the public or private sector are likely to argue that going back to “business as usual” is a viable option. Although COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on lives and livelihoods, it has also acted as a positive disruptive force for long-term transformation, especially for the government and public sector. It’s now clear that the rewards are tremendous for governments that can effectively plan and manage the transformation journey, ignite a vibrant conversation with the public, and tap into the potential of the ecosystem around them.


New ways of working will naturally continue after the pandemic has passed. Governments must find the energy and determination to sustain change beyond the extraordinary circumstances that the pandemic has created and ensure their hard-won progress doesn’t go to waste. We must all remember this is just the start of a real, holistic and effective digital transformation, not the end. Governments can and must seize this moment to absorb the lessons learned, determine how operational models can be remade to provide citizens with the services they want and need in the future, and thereby, improve resilience.

About this article

By Gaurav Taneja

EY India Government and Public Sector Leader and AIM Advisory Government and Public Sector Leader.

At the intersection of public policy, private sector and citizen service. Avid traveler. Football enthusiast.