Understanding the key barriers to digital government
Digital Government
March 28, 2023

Understanding the key barriers to digital government

Municipalities worldwide are increasingly embracing the shift towards digital government. By adopting new technologies, government agencies can streamline operations, enhance service delivery, and ultimately improve citizen experience. However, there are significant challenges that municipalities face in their quest to go digital. Unfortunately, there’s no magical switch that can be flicked in order to usher governments into a new digital era. The work is often hard and takes time – but is incredibly rewarding. Don’t let these barriers to digital government deter your municipality from embarking on the journey. Understanding these roadblocks and how to overcome them will lead your agency to enhanced service delivery for both staff and citizens.

Key barriers to digital government:

1. Lack of digital skills in government departments

One significant barrier to the adoption of a digital government is the lack of digital skills among government personnel. In private industry, businesses typically have dedicated IT departments to run the digital side of their services. However, this is not usually the case in the public sector. Many government departments still rely on traditional, manual processes, and their staff may not have the necessary digital skills to implement and manage digital systems effectively. 

A study by the UK National Audit Office (NAO) reveals a “specialist skills deficit” in government, with “only 4% of civil servants digital professionals, compared with an (private) industry average of between 8% and 12%.” This lack of digital skills can significantly slow down the implementation of digital initiatives and reduce their effectiveness. Furthermore, digital technologies are continually evolving, and government personnel must keep up to date with the latest advancements to effectively serve citizens. Governments must invest in training, upskilling, and reskilling their staff to ensure they have the necessary digital skills to implement and manage digital systems effectively. By implementing such solutions, municipalities can create a workforce that is future-proofed and equipped to take advantage of digital technologies as they evolve over time.

2. Inadequate Infrastructure for rural or remote municipalities

A significant barrier to digital government adoption is inadequate infrastructure. A lack of access to reliable internet connectivity and power supply can slow down or even halt the implementation of digital initiatives. For instance, a remote community without reliable internet connectivity would struggle to access digital services, preventing citizens from using critical government services, such as cloud-based payment systems or online applications for permits or licences.

Before services can even begin to ‘go digital’, governments must first invest in building robust and reliable infrastructure within their communities to support the digital transformation. Rather than seeing this as a barrier, consider this an opportunity for the public sector to develop key partnerships with private enterprise. By working together, public-private partnerships are able to expand access to reliable internet connectivity and power supply in underserved communities. Addressing the issue of inadequate infrastructure allows governments to ensure that more citizens have equal access to digital government services, regardless of their location.

3. The digital divide limits access to services

Similarly to the point above, the digital divide can be a significant barrier to digital government adoption. The digital divide refers to the gap between those who have access to digital technologies and those who do not. In many cases, marginalized communities may not have access to digital technologies, making it challenging for them to access government services. It may be hard for most of us to imagine but less than 10% of the world has common social, mobile, internet, Wi-Fi and digital capabilities. In the United States, broadband is primarily delivered through private-sector internet service providers that build infrastructure and price services based on strategic and financial considerations. But this approach has disproportionately left low-income households, the elderly, and people in rural areas and historically marginalized communities without high-speed internet access. This means that roughly, 24 million Americans lack access to high-speed internet and many more cannot connect due to gaps in digital equity and literacy and/or because the service is priced beyond their reach. 

Governments must develop strategies to bridge this digital divide, ensuring that digital services are accessible to all citizens. In addition to expanding broadband infrastructure to underserved and rural areas, governments can provide funding and support for digital literacy programs, such as computer and internet training, to ensure that all citizens have the skills necessary to fully participate in the digital economy. Furthermore, policies that address affordability, such as subsidizing internet access for low-income households, can help to ensure that cost does not become a barrier to accessing essential online services. By taking these steps, governments can work to bridge the digital divide and promote greater digital inclusion and equity for all citizens.

4. Cumbersome bureaucratic processes and a resistance to change

A far too common complaint of both citizens and private business owners has been the bureaucracy that ties up and slows down developmental progress in government. Private enterprise can often mitigate this type of red-tape sluggishness by taking quick action where it sees issues, such as making personnel changes or altering internal policy. These changes, unfortunately, do not happen at the same speed within the public sector. This environment often creates an infertile ground for change. A tendency to ‘stay the course’, favour steady outcomes, and not challenge the status quo, all create major barriers to digital adoption. Leaders don’t want to move away from how things are normally done because a potential to fail can be a big risk for re-elections. But rather than being concerned with political careers, government agencies should prioritize the wants and needs of their constituents. They should be listening intently to the voice of the modern citizen, who expects a level of digital service delivery similar to what they already receive from the private sector. 

5. Budgetary constraints

Budget plays a pivotal role in the adoption of digital services for any organization. In fact, all barriers discussed here inevitably connect to finances. For instance, employees with specific digital skill sets often opt for private industry, which typically pays more than the public service. Hence, it is harder for government agencies to attract talented individuals in this field. Also, when it comes to digital infrastructure, budgets are important in implementing the necessary accommodations to create greater digital access. Officials must push for allowances in budgets for these important developments. And, of course, with bureaucracy comes a constantly shifting budgetary dynamic that is subject to the influence of conflicting and opposing stakeholders, all bidding for their own interests. Additionally, constraints such as longer procurement cycles and spending restrictions (compared to commercial sectors) often prevent government agencies from adopting cutting-edge technology. Budgets could possibly be considered the largest barrier to adopting a digital government. However, this too can be overcome by officials understanding the return on investment and the many benefits associated with digital government. Citizens can also lobby for improvements and better access to digital services by pushing for budgetary priority in this regard

In order to keep pace with the rapidly evolving digital landscape, the public sector must expand its vision and embrace digital transformation. This requires a gradual yet definitive internal culture shift, where government entities break down barriers and become proponents of technological change. By creating a culture of innovation and change, government agencies can adapt and evolve to meet the needs of their communities. It is essential that the public sector becomes a leader in embracing technological advancements, rather than being a guard for the status quo. Let us work together to create a future that reflects the realities of our communities and sets the stage for continued progress.

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