The digitisation imperative: Discussing innovation with Edwin Lau


Edwin Lau is Head of the Reform of the Public Sector Division in the OECD Public Governance and Territorial Development Directorate. His division helps countries improve the responsiveness of their governments and their relations with citizens and business through work on public sector innovation, e-government, open data, human resources management, and risk management. In this interview, Edwin shares his views on productivity, digitisation and best practice in the public sector.

Q: Through your work in public sector innovation, e-government, open data, human resources management, and risk management – who, globally, is pioneering best practice reform?

The notion of “best practice reform” implies a gold standard that works in all circumstances, when in reality governments are taking many different approaches to respond to – and even anticipate – their particular needs and circumstances.Countries like Denmark, New Zealand and Australia are pioneers in exploring new ways to use ICTs to better serve their constituents. Yet as digital government matures, other countries such as France, Estonia, Canada and the UK are experimenting with how citizen-driven approaches, e.g. by putting data in the hands of citizens to generate new types of services, can show new ways to boost productivity and ensure inclusiveness.

You can find examples in the OECD Observatory of Public Sector Innovation.The key is not introducing a fixed menu of reforms, but rather hardwiring openness, innovation, and agility into the public sector to better operate in a world that is in constant flux. The emphasis on “government as an exemplar” in the recent National Innovation and Science Agenda is helpful. It recognises that governments can and do play a leading role in innovation and transformation, rather than always being followers.

Q: What reforms are proving successful in improving public sector productivity? What are the new measurements and policies?

The 2016 OECD Ministerial, just a few weeks ago, asked us to help build evidence on productivity developments in OECD economies. The contribution in my area will be to look at how to better understand and compare public sector productivity. International evidence is lacking. The UK, for example, is one of the most advanced in measuring public sector productivity, but 37% of its expenses – such as police, defence, justice – still use the input method. No two countries measure public sector productivity the same way, so the OECD will work on standardising and improving measurement of public sector productivity from an international perspective.

We will also look at how public management and governance – such as identifying and developing skills, digitisation or service transformation efforts – can improve public sector productivity. We must keep in mind, however, that the more important question is how the public sector can support better productivity in the broader economy.

One of the major findings of our new report on Inclusive Growth is how important public services – such as education and health services – and their outcomes are in sustaining overall productivity and in improving living standards.

“The key is not introducing a fixed menu of reforms, but rather hardwiring openness, innovation & agility into the public sector.”

Q: What does the complete integration of e-government look like on a global scale? What are the emerging capabilities?

Governments around the globe face a digitisation imperative, not just to put services online, but to undergo a digital transformation in which the digitisation of their operations is aligned with the needs and trends of increasingly networked societies.

The OECD is supporting this process through its 2014 Recommendation on Digital Government Strategies which shows that making government digital by design involves embedding values of transparency and citizen engagement into the ways in which we deploy ICT, and that when services are driven by the needs of users, they end up supporting more efficient organisation of government activities, and more inclusive decision-making processes.

Another emerging trend is governments’ growing interest in data as a strategic asset to support decision-making. New data management and processing capabilities provide an opportunity to better understand complex issues and to collaborate on global challenges such as climate change, migration flows, tax evasion or sustainable development. Examples of a data-driven public sector are appearing everywhere. For instance, the forthcoming OECD Review of Open Data in Mexico shows how the Mexican government has used open data to monitor corruptionprone activities, including public procurement or of major public projects such as the construction of the new airport in Mexico City.

Q: What changes does the Australian Government need to implement now to keep up with the advances of e-government?

Australia is a global leader in digital government, consistently ranking highly internationally. But the need to go further – to transform government itself – led the government to establish its Digital Transformation Office in 2015. The government should continue these effort by inviting other parts of the public sector to take part in this transformation.
Australia could further develop its governance frameworks and data capabilities as well, in line with its use of data as a strategic asset. The OECD OURdata Index (Open, Useful and Re-usable Data) showed Australia as number four in the OECD in terms of making data available and facilitating its reuse. The understanding of open data is now extending, however, beyond government.
Public sector institutions themselves are starting to become open data consumers. Open data from nontraditional sources such as civil society allows government to capture insights to support both foresight and oversight. A recent meeting at the OECD looked at how National Statistics Offices can make better use of these new data sources for the development of territorial indicators.

“Governments can & do play a leading role in innovation & transformation.”

Q: What strategies can be used to achieve a multi-functional civil work force?

Much of our current work on public employment is focused on answering this question. We are doing this in two ways: First, we are asking civil servants around the world to tell us what skills and competencies they see as essential to build a workforce that can respond quickly and effectively to emerging challenges and future priorities.

We’re looking at engagement skills to work more closely with citizens and service users; collaboration skills to achieve public impact through networks; business skills to commission better outcomes; and policy-advisory skills that leverage new approaches to policy design and delivery. And all this in the context of today’s digital age.
Second, we are asking what policies and employment conditions are needed to attract people with these skills to the public sector; to develop them; and to ensure that they have the opportunities to innovate and to perform. One powerful tool is the use of employee surveys to measure and manage employee engagement.

The APSC State of the Service survey is among the best we’ve seen. It provides a unique source of data that can be used to understand employee views, inform leadership, and benchmark organisations. We are working with a number of countries to take this one step further by developing a comparative indicator that can enable governments to benchmark engagement scores internationally.


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