Taking the Federal Digital Leap: Inevitable, Imperative and Doable


The question many are asking is, if we want to become digital, where do we begin?

Kymm McCabe is a principal at Deloitte Digital.

We are at an inflection point in human history. We’re warming to the idea that the digital age is here and we’re starting to take it seriously. And as we come to terms with the notion that digital transformation is not a choice, it’s inevitable, the question many are asking is, if we want to become digital, where do we begin? This article offers some actionable ideas.

A good starting point is to revisit the four “revolutions” driving the current global digital shift. They are key to finding the answers federal organizations seek. According to digital futurist Don Tapscott:

  • The technology revolution continues to deliver industry-disrupting capabilities such as 3-D printing, cognitive computing, the internet of things and cloud-based everything.
  • The social revolution—think social media—changed how and the speed at which we connect, communicate and collaborate by providing real-time information that eliminates boundaries between people, companies and countries.
  • The net revolution is fueled by digital natives—people born into the digital world with bottom-line expectations of speed, participation and value in every interaction—who continue to lead global citizen and employee expectations.
  • Finally, the economic revolution stems from technology’s power to nearly eliminate transaction costs and reduce market friction by removing organizational and national boundaries that hampered global collaboration, production and innovation.

In other words, these revolutions are changing almost everything, from human interactions to technological implementations. Which means we are now forced to examine how these new methods fundamentally change our work and the expectations of value.

To this end, businesses are embracing the notion of becoming mature digital enterprises, and leading organizations are actively applying principles of “strategic digital transformation.” In fact, by 2018, 67 percent of Global 2000 CEOs are expected to have "digital" at the center of their corporate strategy, according to IDC’s top technology predictions.  

Reinforcing this focus, a global MIT Sloan study, "Strategy not Technology Drives Digital Transformation," observed that “Digital strategies in the most mature organizations are developed with an eye on transforming the business … versus solving discrete business problems with individual digital technologies.”

Because the federal government is still just starting its journey, efforts to date have primarily been opportunistic rather than transformative. Agencies have implemented digital “point-solutions” that address a specific requirement or issue rather than creating a digital transformation strategy to serve as a guide for prioritizing and implementing impactful digital solutions step by step.

The good news is, the federal government is primed to make the shift from a transactional to a strategic digital approach as many leaders recognize the impact of the four revolutions. Some federal organizations are already taking steps toward creating digital-age enterprises. Federal organizations are maturing as they realize that simply doing digital things does not make them digital. To take a real digital leap, agencies need to make developing a holistic digital strategy a high priority.

It's All About Humans and Value

It’s important to note "holistic" does not mean doing everything at once, but it does mean thinking through a broad-based set of transformational aspirations and opportunities. An easy way is with a digital transformation maturity model. Deloitte Digital uses Digital DNA to identify characteristics that help organizations assess their current and aspirational states and select the most impactful initiatives to move forward quickly so they will thrive in a digital world.

These characteristics range from Continuously Innovating and Real Time & On-Demand, to Morphing Team Structures and Productive Mobility. This type of approach helps put first things first by identifying areas of transformation with the greatest potential impact to achieve the organization’s digital desires and sequencing them to build essential capabilities and momentum in the most effective and efficient sequence.

Today, federal agencies' areas of need are typically expressed in the following areas:

Reimagining governmentHow can we establish new operating models for the digital world? Often, efforts in this area target concentrating on human experiences vs. procedure, desired outcomes vs. processes, and transitioning from legacy to new business models and technologies.

Making these changes requires an understanding of where the agency falls within a digital transformation framework that categorizes missions along a spectrum, from those that operate like retail businesses (think U.S. Postal Service), to those that foster research and education (think Education Department and International Trade Administration), to those that regulate or enforce laws and protect the nation (think departments of Homeland Security and Defense). It means identifying the agency’s key digital aspirations, and including the art of the possible in the agency's “brand”—how the agency wants to be experienced and perceived.

Only then can you reimagine what steps the agency could take to create a road map (not a plan) and rewire to quickly drive compliant, digital results. Such a road map should include rethinking delivery models, refocusing on people, retooling and modernizing technology, and creating a culture that marries the digital mindset with our public service ethos to deliver on its mission today and in the future.

Then, organizations can select a few of the most impactful initiatives and get started. Take deliberate steps to deliver incremental value in the direction of the aspirations, learn from experiences, and keep moving forward.

Defining and designing "customer," citizen and employee experiences: How can superior experiences be created at every touchpoint? This usually means identifying the diverse "customer" and employee types such as soldiers, analysts, travelers, taxpayers, benefits recipients and visitors. You will want to identify the customer and employee experience and discover their "wants," behaviors and touch points by mapping their journeys (this is not the same as process mapping).

Your organization's data and analytics provide the key to continuously gaining a better understanding of customer and organizational needs and opportunities; making decisions that have a mission, citizen, or employee impact; and providing stakeholders with the new capabilities they seek.

This approach can also improve experiences by delivering digital innovations to customers through products and services, campaigns and touch points, business model innovations, personalized content, data-rich delivery mechanisms and value-creating ecosystems. In other words, it is important to design and build omni-channel experiences that actively engage people where they are and meet their varying digital age expectations.

Digitizing operationsHow do we change our operations in support of a digital enterprise? The good news is, by identifying with the digital aspirations and customer experience front-and-center, it becomes clear what operations must be changed to be effective, efficient and rapid to meet digital-era expectations.

This requires reimagining operations and creating a roadmap considering a continuum of digital dimensions and then rewiring front-to-back-office operations as an extension of the broader transition to a digital organization. This means focusing on the evolution from legacy to digital approaches and technologies required to serve customers and deliver missions as desired.

Factors Driving Effectiveness

Establishing a holistic digital strategy that provides services that meet the needs and expectations of customers and employees is an imperative, but it is also far from simple. That said, consider these factors that can help keep your federal digital efforts on track:

Inclusion, diversity and collaboration: Interesting ideas and effective digital implementations thrive on nontraditional participation. Design thinking requires it. The digital age necessitates it. Ensure meaningful involvement of people outside your team, function, organization and industry. It’s surprising how analogous organizations (think emergency room team and a pit crew) bring truly fresh and fierce ideas.

Focus on value: The digital age is the value age. Instead of focusing on digital shiny objects, home in on (hopefully holistic) meaningful impacts. Strategy (and culture), not technology, drives digital transformation,

Put citizens and employees first: Make citizen/employee experience and value the No. 1 priority.

Find new ideas: Take the digital leap by "reimagining" vs. re-engineering or reforming. Look for ways to solve long-standing citizen/customer, mission delivery and operational issues mindful of legal/legislative compliance but unrestrained by the status quo. Remember, regulation and policy can be changed.

Don’t buy the fish before the aquarium: Fish without an aquarium will likely suffer or die. So will “new talent” without a digital-era ecosystem for them to "live" in. Focus on creating a digital-era host environment before you hire or spin off digital age teams.

Protect the people: Insulate digital teams from layers of bureaucracy, policies and other impediments to discovery and innovation. Create momentum and scale as momentum builds.

Shift the culture: Build teams that bring design thinking and disruptive ideas to your transformation.

Think exponentially: Set bold goals to achieve factors of 10X impact. Defeat incrementalism within the government, and allow failure.

Create agile execution: Treat digital-age initiatives like research and development. Learn to develop and try ideas in short iterative sprints conducted by empowered teams.

Federal Digital Enterprises Are on the Rise

The federal journey to the digital age from the previous industrial and information ages has started with opportunistic digitization targets. The tipping point comes with envisioning the agency’s digital future, creating a digital enterprise strategy, and then deliberately and iteratively implementing initiatives.

If private industry success is an indicator of potential federal success, agencies can look forward to a future of improved mission results, growing citizen and employee satisfaction, innovation in every function, and increased agency efficiency and performance.

The digital age is here. Becoming digital is not a question of if, but when, and we now have the opportunity and the imperative to take the digital leap that advances federal service and allows our remarkable country to excel.