How Should the Government Decide Which Digital Services to Build First?

Citizens are increasingly demanding that government services are available online. Much of everyday life has moved online, so it would seem a reasonable expectation that paying taxes and ordering government services will be equally convenient. Besides, e-government can bring economic growth too.

Yet governments are resource-restricted entities and when it comes to digital transformation every government must prioritise. In this article, we suggest the points governments should consider when deciding which digital services they should build first.

Understand Where Your Country is Lagging

Governments must first take a step back and analyse where their country is currently lagging behind in the digital arena. It is worth doing this analysis in context, doing a comparison against peers. An African nation cannot compare itself to a Scandinavian nation, for example. The realities on the ground are simply too different.

Instead, governments should study what their peers are doing in terms of digital government and identify lagging areas. For developing nations, this may mean rolling out information service provision, skills development and the like before considering online tax payment facilities. Other nations may need cutting-edge technology to keep up with their neighbours, or go all-digital in communicating with its citizens, as Denmark has done.

Focus on the Deliverables

While tempting to fully embrace e-government in all corners of the public sector, governments should appreciate that public sector digital services projects often fail, with costly repercussions. Failure can be for a number of reasons including a shortage of funds, a lack of skills, or projects that do not meet citizen’s needs.

To avoid failure, consider first what your citizens are able to sensibly make use of. Developed nations with high internet adoption rates can push boundaries, whereas nations with low internet penetration should not embark on projects that lock out large sections of the population. Likewise, governments that have very little in existing digital services provision should be cautious when embarking on far-reaching, expansive digital services projects.

Determine Economic Value

Governments are accountable to taxpayers: governments must spend money wisely, just like a business would. In spending money on digital services, a government should consider the return on investment. E-government can have a substantial pay-off, but not every e-government project has an equal economic impact.

Questions to ask include: will the digital government project create economic efficiencies that will lead to economic growth? Will the project save government money in the long run by optimising processes and reducing manual paperwork? Ranking prospective projects according to economic value should be an important deciding factor.

Know Your Competitive Advantage

Nations with a competitive advantage over their peers can reward their citizens with prosperity. Government digital services can be a gateway to competitive advantage: provide digital services your peers do not, and your domestic businesses can thrive against their international competitors while your nation attracts foreign enterprises.

For example, the Nordic countries are currently embarking on a Nordic Smart Government project which is intended to provide real-time data for Nordic businesses, reducing administrative burdens while promoting growth and innovation. Whichever stage your government’s digital services delivery is in, pick the projects that will deliver a competitive advantage over your peers.

Consult Your Citizens

Finally, governments are renowned for misunderstanding what their citizens require. As we mentioned earlier, government digital services projects can fail because they simply don’t meet the needs of citizens. A good starting point would be to consult with your citizens, finding out where their biggest needs lie.

A citizen’s consultation will quickly highlight the biggest frustrations when it comes to accessing government services. It may highlight where digital government has, in fact, failed and may help governments understand which projects to prioritise. Academic studies and government planning, in contrast, can only go so far.


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