Technology isn’t coming for your job—it’s coming to support your work

Something as simple as using automation to eliminate manual and repetitive compliance-based tasks from employees’ day-to-day can free up resources for higher-...

Every day, government employees are asked to do more with less. With budgets shrinking and populations growing, most regulatory agencies face a choice: expand your impact or keep the lights on. Between these two options, maintenance wins — every time. And it should. When your organization is responsible for services that support citizens’ lives and livelihoods, there is no other option. However, what many agencies don’t realize is that they can have both if they’re open to embracing change and employing thoughtful digital strategies.

Reactions to digitalizing legacy processes among government employees run the gamut, but many greet the idea with something between skepticism and fear. On one side, there are concerns that allowing computers to take over workers’ daily tasks may make certain roles obsolete. On the other, there’s a fear that these types of decisions are too big to entrust to machines, as mistakes can lead to delays or for some agencies even catastrophic events.

However, none of these concerns reflect the reality. Digitalization efforts, done well, are exercises in holistic assessment, evaluation and change management guided not by new technology but by the needs of the organization.

Changing your approach by putting change management at the center

Many of the concerns about investing in digitalization stem from the perception that these initiatives take on a life of their own. People hear “digital transformation” and picture a prescriptive solution comprised of untested technologies applied across an organization without a second thought to the agency’s unique needs. That’s not the case.

It’s not about picking a solution and putting it into place the next day; digital transformation is about doing the hard work of understanding how systems work from every angle and using that information to develop efficiencies that support the agency’s mission. It’s about making adjustments that support better work, guided by understanding and informed by input from all levels. It should be rooted in a desire to shift the paradigm within agencies and led by a desire to help experts to focus on the work that intrigues and excites them.

As such, it cannot happen overnight nor without input from stakeholders with deep knowledge of not only how things are done but why they are done. Here are the steps that can guide success along the way:

1.  Assess the baseline. The process starts with an audit of current procedures. To conduct the audit, the change management team should take time to speak with legacy employees to understand why current systems are in place and how they work. Similarly, speaking with new hires can shed light on the parts of the system that commonly posed challenges when they started.

The audit should include everyday frustrations employees encounter, a review of larger issues that have arisen in the past, and actions taken to address both of these categories. It should also include a catalog of the department or agency’s assets, software investments and analog systems. All this information helps the change management team get a clear view of the current situation and relevant historical context. 

2. Outline goals. Alongside the above, the team should ask employees and other stakeholders what capabilities they’d like to have and what initiatives they wish they had more time or money to pursue. It’s important to keep in mind that, in a change-led process, the goals should be framed in terms of tangible outcomes, not as a wish list of technologies.

Maybe Transportation Department employees would like to have more time to focus on identifying and addressing risk. Maybe Interior Department workers would like the time to do more in-depth impact analyses on proposed renewable energy projects. It doesn’t matter what the goal is so long as it is framed around outcomes that drive the department’s overall mission forward. Encourage employees to say “I wish I had the resources to…” rather than “I’d like to have a system that…”

3. Identify things that get in the way. Now, with an understanding of how the business works and stakeholders’ wants, change management teams can begin to identify the obstacles that get in the way.

 This step is about defining and ranking barriers to progress. Change management leaders should analyze the information from these audits to identify bottlenecks in current procedures and extraneous tasks that monopolize workers’ time. For the DoT workers above, for example, this process may find that the time they spend searching through spreadsheets for permit approvals diverts resources from updating policies.

Once the team has a complete list, they should rank these obstacles by how common they are among staff members and their relative impact on progress toward the mission.

4. Explore available options. Now, and only now, should teams begin to consider technological solutions. For the DoT workers mentioned above, creating an integrated record of regulatory guidance and utilizing artificial intelligence or robotic process automation (RPA) to complete compliance audits may be a good option. Or the team may decide that it makes more sense to offer a digital portal for applicants, eliminating the need for workers to complete the administrative tasks associated with reconciling paper documents. For other departments, it might be as simple as translating legacy procedures into more accessible formats.

The important part is that each solution is informed by current processes, outcomes-based goals, and identified obstacles to tailor the technological solutions to the agency’s mission.

 5. Develop a plan of action. Now that the team knows what aspects of the organization would benefit from digitalized workflows, they can outline a plan to make it happen. This should detail where the team suggests starting and why, how much each phase will cost, where the money will come from, and how long the entire process will take. It’s also important to address concerns about system downtime in this plan so that everyone involved understands the larger vision at work.

 In this stage, it can help to plan for incremental change, prioritizing the lowest-cost and -effort investments that are likely to make the most impact. Starting small helps get the ball rolling by illustrating the tangible benefits to stakeholders in real time.

6. Pivot when necessary. Developing an action plan can help put the project and its desired outcomes into perspective, but it’s critical that teams see the plan as a suggested route rather than train tracks. Staying open to the idea that the department’s needs may change before the plan is completed is key to this process, even if it extends timelines. That means being receptive to feedback from employees and experts and being flexible if you need to change course.

The only way to know if the plan is working is to engage in consistent evaluations and conversations with people in the know. If that means seeking more opinions — internally or from third-party specialists — that’s OK.

Shifting perspective

Contrary to what many think, digital transformation is not just about making paper processes digital. Instead, digital transformation can enable agencies to streamline processes and enhance productivity. Introducing new technologies — like RPA, integrated databases and digital portals — doesn’t take jobs away; it can help workers can handle routine, rules-based tasks efficiently, improving throughput while reducing workloads.

Something as simple as using automation to eliminate manual and repetitive compliance-based tasks from employees’ day-to-day can free up resources for higher-value activities that more directly accomplish mission outcomes. In short, digitalization is about adding value by freeing workers to focus their attention on the things that matter most. But these benefits come only to organizations that engage in a comprehensive and ongoing process centered around employee and community needs.

Kristy Huang is business development manager for global government at ABS Group.

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