Public sector needs CIOs to lead digital transformation

Vision and culture required to change government approach, says Gartner

Tags: Digital transformationDigitisationGartner Inc. (
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Public sector needs CIOs to lead digital transformation Digital transformation requires a change in culture and leadership and a clear vision, says Olding.
By  Mark Sutton Published  August 22, 2016

Public sector CIOs can lead a digital revolution in their organisations, creating new citizen services, according to Gartner, but only if they can overcome the risk-adverse culture typically found in government.

The analyst company says that CIOs in government organisations are well positioned to drive digitisation efforts and to implement better ways of working, but that change requires vision and changes to culture and leadership practices.

Public sector organisations often face restraint from top-down hierarchies, cultural legacies and the lack of a compelling vision, Gartner said, but there are successful examples of organisations that have changed focus for the better.

Elise Olding, research vice president at Gartner, said that public sector leaders — including CIOs — must create a culture that is less averse to change, unified in vision and direction, and that can manage change more effectively over longer time frames.

"Public sector organisations often have cultural and organisational mechanisms to buffer them from rapid swings in the political or economic landscape. While this provides stability, it also makes large-scale organisational change a difficult prospect,” Olding said.

"None of these challenges are insurmountable. Based on our conversations with public sector CIOs who have seen success in their digital transformation, Gartner has identified three key recommendations,” she added.

Gartner’s key recommendations for successful digital leadership are:

Promote a Compelling Vision

In an ideal scenario, a CIO will receive clear direction on the strategic intent of the organisation and the role IT will play in that. Too often, however, public sector organisations lack a clear ‘business’ strategy to which the CIO can align IT investments. Yet, in either case, it's vital the CIO formulates a vision of how technology investments will achieve a desired future state for the organization.

"The best kind of vision should fit on a postcard," said Olding. "It expresses in clear, non-technical terms on one page what is wrong with the status quo, and outlines a set of activities and investments that will improve things."

A vision like this allows for engagement with executive leaders, so they can affirm, revise or reject and replace the strategic direction the CIO has outlined for the IT organisation. If clear executive direction was lacking from the outset, this engagement may serve as a catalyst to improve the strategy outside the IT organisation. If a clear direction was in place, the vision will still affirm and provide a template for IT's role in bringing it to reality.

Make Change Inclusive

"Getting executive buy-in is just the first step; the vision is the cornerstone for action," said Olding. "It's critical to communicate the vision to midlevel management and frontline workers in a way that demonstrates how their role fits into the vision, and how the completed vision will improve their role. A credible answer to the question, 'What's in it for me?' builds caring and belief."

It's also important that the vision shows how it builds on the good work of earlier efforts. This will not be the first vision seen by most employees. Many of them will have invested in one or more previous visions, only to see them swept away or discredited by a new round of leaders. They may be justifiably sceptical of a new picture. To win their support CIOs must avoid hyping their vision as a panacea, but rather present it as an iteration and expansion of previous achievements.

In addition to honouring the culture and legacy of an organisation and how it contributes to the future vision, CIOs must cultivate ‘change agents’. These are employees who clearly understand the vision and its benefits, and champion it among their peers. CIOs can better harness the creativity and insights of the entire organisation when they constantly invite, encourage and support employees at all levels who show desire to make the vision a reality.

Alter Leadership Practices

Embracing change will require changes for everyone, and that starts with leadership. Organisational cultures can foster myths that are comfortable yet counterproductive. Such myths are rooted in the language of "that's how we've always done things," which reinforces a victim mentality and smothers innovation.

"The CIOs who succeed in transforming the business actively confront ingrained behaviours, traditions and legacy processes," said. Olding. "They challenge leadership and are successful in instilling a clearly defined sense of urgency around their vision that gains the trust and support of the entire organisation, from leadership to frontline workers."

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