A funny thing happened on the way to digital government

Commentary by Thom Rubel
Business Line Leader, Pegasystems

One of the most famous musicals, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, tells the story of a slave named Pseudolus and his attempts to win his freedom. The plot displays typical elements of farce — puns, pratfalls and cases of mistaken identity.

Unfortunately, this classic farce has some uncomfortable parallels in the journey to digital government. Like Pseudolus, agencies try to gain “freedom” from a current problem with an approach that leads to mistaken identification of what needs to be done and side shows that waste time, energy and resources. All too often, the plan ends up delivering just one limited outcome, requiring the show to start all over to solve the next problem.

(Courtesy of Thom Rubel/LinkedIn)

The difficulty is that it’s easy to get distracted and lose sight of the goal. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are three key “thinking” strategies that can eliminate the sideshows which prevent true digital government.

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Think globally, act locally

Pseudolus had a strategic vision — his freedom — but wasn’t able to understand how his actions along the way could help him reach his grand goal.

Digital government is a vision shared across an agency or government, but for the department head or program manager with a particular problem to solve, it may seem totally unrelated to the current situation.

In fact, the best way to achieve digital government is to pursue IT strategies and solutions to current problems in ways that contribute to the overall vision. This means not embracing solutions that solve the immediate problem and nothing else because these end up as little more than distracting side shows. Instead, look at how technology can solve a problem today, but also how it offers the potential to help construct a true digital environment.

When you “think globally” with a digital platform, you can “act locally”, meeting specific program or departmental needs while supporting systemic growth and cross-fertilization, and enabling multiple programs and departments to leverage each other’s solutions within the platform.

Start by understanding how a project or solution fits into the overall digital government mission and how it could be used by other parts of the organization.

Then, make sure your IT methodology and technology are open, agile and interactive with other solutions.

For example, the overall goal may be to transform service delivery to provide consistent, high-quality constituent services and create a more manageable workload for employees. Short term, the need may be for a process that lets constituents apply online for a specific benefits program. By designing the components of a self-service solution in a way that can be reused by other programs and processes, you can solve the short-term issue as well as create a foundation that can be leveraged to meet the long-term digital government vision.

When you develop solutions in this way, thinking globally and acting locally complement one another, enabling you to take advantage of modern technologies, such as mobility and the cloud, to make sure your solution is not just a sideshow and instead becomes a meaningful contributor to the overall digital transformation effort.

Adapt your thinking

The one constant in government is change. Every program changes as new legislation is passed, budgets shrink or grow, and events affect who uses the program.

The trouble comes when technology and IT development strategies can’t adapt to change. One-off solutions are frequently too hard to modify, and so the solution development process must start from scratch in order to accommodate new requirements. Traditional waterfall development methodology — in which every possible requirement has to be known from the word go — takes far too long and cannot accommodate changes that naturally occur.

The ability to nimbly adjust to change is a key requirement for agencies to flourish in any circumstance. Even when developing a short-term solution, adaptive thinking should always be used. Approach a project from the point of view that it will change over time and abandon the waterfall methodology in favor of agile, iterative and phased design, development and implementation that integrates change as a part of the process. This makes solution development much easier, as not every requirement needs to be understood up front, and the solution can constantly be refined to account for new circumstances.

Think agility

Just as rigid waterfall development methodologies are not going to cut it, static single-solution technology is bound to fail as well. Adaptive thinking demands equally agile technology that promotes versatility and scalability. When considering technology platforms, put agility at the top of your requirements list. In particular, look for technology that delivers the following:

  • A model-driven approach to application development that lets program owners and IT collaborate to create solutions that reflect real-world needs. Models can be designed, tested and refined iteratively, providing a far more flexible and adaptable approach to solution development.
  • Rules-driven processes that maximize reuse to support digital transformation. For example, a core eligibility process can be designed with functions that can be used by many different programs. Business rules are layered onto the core process to account for the variations each program requires, delivering program-specific, short-term benefits as well as long-term reuse by multiple programs and departments.
  • Government processes that can go with constituents and employees as they become more mobile. This requires omni-channel technology capable of providing seamless service over and across every channel and device so that every interaction continues without interruption, no matter how many channels are used.

The road to digital government may not always be smooth or easy. By acting strategically, adaptively and with agility, agencies can achieve real success, enabling them to deliver responsive, efficient services and reach the highest levels of performance that are the hallmarks of true digital government.


Thom Rubel is a business line leader for Pegasystems and is responsible for guiding its global public strategy. Thom has more than 25 years of experience in government information technology organizations including stints with the U.S. federal government, 10 years with the National Governors Association focusing on state issues, and 10 years in the information technology market research business.

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