Making the most of a moment for change

2018 October Malaysia delegation BCG

One unexpected privilege of digital government going global is that we get to meet people who have come to London to see for themselves what worked (and what didn’t) here.

Last month, our partners at BCG hosted Hon. Gobind Singh Deo, the recently appointed Malaysian Minister of Communications and Multimedia. They invited Emma and I to tell him and his team some stories about the early days of digital government in the UK.

We talk a lot about making the most of a crisis. Often crises offer an opportunity to get started on the institutional changes needed to establish new ways of working. That’s how it played out for GDS. The fiscal deficit provided the government with something to focus its high-level political strategy on. Successive major IT project failures provided plenty of reasons for prioritising an expensive problem.

Introducing an internet-era approach to delivering public services can be a pragmatic decision as much as it is a bold one. When the choice is either cutting costs by stripping back front-line public services, or taking a chance on doing things differently, it suddenly looks much more politically attractive to use the latter to minimise the need for the former.

Malaysia is in a very different economic position to the UK in 2010. Nonetheless, it is experiencing its own moment of change. In May this year, the country elected a new government for the first time ever, replacing a regime that had been in power since gaining independence from the UK 61 years ago. Malaysia has recently slipped down international rankings for transparency and e-government. Now is arguably the ideal moment to create powerful new institutional levers for challenging inertia, like spending controls and opening up the market for public sector contracts to new technology suppliers with different ideas.

We left the meeting excited by the opportunity for a new mandate and mission for digital in Malaysia, based on a government that’s open to working in a radically new way. We’ve seen elsewhere that it’s all too easy to simply copy the signs of digital transformation that are visible the outside. It’s often called cargo culting, and it’s not pretty. From afar these cosmetic shifts look like change, but behind the scenes it’s business as usual.

For example: building a single domain website based on meeting user needs is generally a good thing. But unless you have the difficult internal conversations and governance changes needed before turning off the thousands of websites a single domain should replace, all you’ve really done is add another layer of confusion.

Changing what happens on the inside is important. Never waste a good opportunity to do that.

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