Why Local and State Governments Should Look to the Private Sector When It Comes to Automation

We don’t typically think of governments as being at the forefront of technological innovation. Many government systems lag far behind those in the private sector when it comes to digitization because they rely on outdated legacy systems and manual data entry. As a result, efficiency is far from optimal.

Examples are easy to find. The IRS still relies on computer code from almost 60 years ago. In certain jurisdictions across the United States, votes are still counted by hand — a process that can take weeks. In the United Kingdom, the National Health Service still employs some 9,000 fax machines to transmit sensitive patient data.

Many government agencies know they are past due for an automation overhaul, but the complexity and scale of their operations makes finding solutions difficult. This is where the private sector can offer valuable guidance on incorporating digitization and automation into processes. Though operations between the two sectors are very different, the public sector can still learn a few lessons in digital transformation from the private.

How to Support Digital Transformation

Most municipalities are entangled in the decades-old model of processing forms by hand — which is labor-intensive, time-consuming, and error-prone. To overcome this, solutions must address the complexity of bureaucratic operations, handle large volumes, and enable a quick and seamless transition between old and new systems.

To bridge the gap between paper and digital, invest in automated data extraction tools and classification technologies that are now being tied to unified data management systems. This approach enables continued use of paper-based systems but also pushes the entire process toward the ultimate goal of being completely digital.

Improved technology provides immediate value in the area of customer service as well. Forrester Research discovered that government is one of the lowest-ranked industries for customer service. Implementing artificial intelligence-powered systems can help citizens sign up for services and acquire information with ease. Chatbots, email support, and intelligent voice recognition can improve service quality and extend operating hours while reducing staffing demands.

Despite the benefits technology offers to government processes, their implementation confronts significant barriers. Budget constraints, a resistant workforce, and incompatibility between systems present the most salient obstacles to digital transformation. To forge ahead, a few key strategies should be utilized.

1. Resist budget myopia. For companies, the incentive to invest in the upfront costs of technology is more immediately evident than it is in the public sector. After all, falling behind on tech upgrades could quickly cost businesses their market share. Without such an incentive, the public sector must focus on long-term gains when thinking about near-term costs.

Focus on the likelihood that long-term savings will far outweigh initial expenditures. Forecast far enough into the future to clearly demonstrate overall cost reductions. Additionally, highlight process redundancies in measures of current costs and reduced claims and labor hours in forecasted savings.

2. Empower tech-resistant civil servants. Those in the private sector have an easier time with the tech transition because their incentives are higher, but businesses still know they need to show employees what they stand to gain.

For the private sector, this means showing that automated processes will lead to higher production in less time, which equals higher profits. In the public sector, technology demonstrations can show employees that they can have a simpler workflow and better user experience. Robust training programs and demonstrations can empower employees to utilize the system to its fullest potential.

3. Encourage data consolidation. Businesses are increasingly aware of the value of consolidated data, particularly when it comes to customers. The adoption of customer relationship management software that keeps all customer data in one easily accessible place is on the rise.

Government departments, on the other hand, tend to maintain separate data processing and storage systems that rarely interface with each other. Disparate systems create inefficiencies — which not only cost time, labor, and taxpayer money, but also hinder service quality. Utilizing a truly federated or central data system capable of ingesting and sharing data across departments can prove far more efficient.

For example, there’s no need for a recently unemployed individual to apply three separate times for unemployment benefits, food assistance, and public health insurance. With a single application portal and shared data between these programs, the application process is greatly simplified, communication expenses are reduced, and a lot of time is saved.

Automation continues to grow exponentially, yet government agencies consistently struggle to adapt. With a positive mentality and some strategic thinking, technological progress is possible in the public sector. Leadership need only take cues from the business world to produce the efficiencies government so desperately needs.

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