Speed matters in any organisational or government level digital makeovers. But getting the initial processes sorted out is as vital. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Recent government focus globally has been on COVID-19, climate and sustainability agendas, in addition to continuing a citizen-centric transformation. In the Middle East, there has been emphasis on accelerating digital transformation, to meet ambitious national digital agendas and rising citizen expectations, and to address lingering digital government maturity gaps.

Three digital transformation trends are observed across the region:

• Re-structuring of key public sector authorities to ensure prioritization of government efforts. In 2021 the UAE re-established the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority as Telecommunications and Digital Government Regulatory Authority. The TDRA recently published its ‘Digital Transformation Enablers Report’ highlighting the comprehensive Federal Network (FEDnet) cloud infrastructure, the UAE Pass digital ID, and the national customer relationship management system (NCRM).

• Centralized regulation of digital transformation efforts on a national level. Saudi Arabia established a Digital Government Authority (DGA) in March 2021 following the launch the Kingdom’s national digital strategy. The DGA regulates digital government across government agencies. It is also responsible for preparing and overseeing the implementation of the Kingdom’s national strategy for digital government.

• Harmonized digital government services targeting enhanced government-to-citizen experience. Kuwait announced the launch of its Sahel mobile app, bringing together all key e-government services into one application. It marks a strategic achievement in the government’s vision for Kuwait 2035.

Challenges to public sector digital execution

As the public sector takes steps in helping citizens and institutions adapt to the technological landscape, it faces multiple challenges in planning and orchestrating a digital transformation. These include hesitation of middle a management towards the transformation, whilst 82 per cent of the most digitally mature organizations had high levels of CEO engagement. An emphasis on safety is prevalent, as expressed in the prioritization of preparedness, business continuity and a significant focus on authority.

Common challenges include complex legacy technology architectures that are inflexible to change with limited documentation, vendor lock-ins for specific software, custom-developed solutions not compatible with off-the-shelf modules, over-siloed architecture, and limited overarching standards and guidelines.

Additionally, there is a lack of specialized talent and overall organizational capability to drive digital transformation. Digital/IT executives cite talent shortage as by far the most significant barrier in transformations, with 64 per cent of responses vs. 29 per cent for implementation cost. This is underlined by the failure to adopt an agile, test-and-learn mindset, whereby 83 per cent of unsuccessful transformations had leadership lacking an agile mindset, while successful transformations leveraged being agile in 67 per cent of the cases.

Ultimately, monitoring of progress towards outcomes is ineffective due to excessive – and often conflicting – KPIs, while targets complicate decision-making. They exhaust management bandwidth with over-focus on complex and granular processes or data-capture, rather than overall impact and ability to support informed decisions.

Building blocks for digital execution

The public sector must augment efforts to tackle the most important challenges and capture their greatest opportunities, paving the way for greater effectiveness, impact and public value. Having a pragmatic, prioritized, citizen-centered roadmap will help focus management efforts and resources. A strategic roadmap and use cases will also highlight a set of most effective KPIs and milestones to track.

The key shift within architecture and data is from a monolithic to modular architecture. This accelerates innovation by decoupling front-end capabilities, liberates data from core transactional systems, and enables implementation of the smart business engines needed for AI and machine learning.

The challenges related to organizational capability and individual talent are intertwined. The technology organization building block addresses the former, and a comprehensive sourcing strategy is a step to solving the latter. Governments should consider optimal suites of tools that will support their overall digital transformation.

Finally, leaders must define roles through a governance framework on a broad range of topics, requiring close coordination with the private sector, while also balancing diverse needs across government entities, businesses and citizens.

With many of the foundational organizational structures and programs in place, now is the time for governments in the Middle East to sharpen their digital transformation implementation. Strengthening implementation capability will help deliver both the desired business value - and more satisfied citizens.

Rami Riad Mourtada

The writer is Partner and Director, Boston Consulting Group.