Everybody wants digital government, but doubts remain about ROI

A new survey shows that agencies want to be more innovative in the digital space, but struggle to show a clear return on investment.

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Government employees think that making their agency more digital is important, but many say they haven't seen measurable benefits from the IT investment they'd already made, according to a new survey of government IT professionals.

James Warrick of Beacon Technology Partners, which conducted the survey, presented the results at a Sept. 15 conference on digital government sponsored by 1105 Media, GCN's parent company. He said he doesn't interpret the findings as saying ROI is impossible.

"I think what they're saying is that digital government is hard because of what it involves," Warrick said. "It's not just the upfront cost, it's not just having to bring along and modernize legacy systems; it's involving policies, it's involving IT governance, change management."

The survey also found that agencies interested in implementing more digital services were concerned about change management and security. At agencies that had already adopted digital services, however, respondents raised concerns about the time involved with digital innovation and legacy system maintenance.

Warrick said that part of realizing ROI is investing in technology that is relevant to the citizens and government employees who will be using it. Replacing his daughter's lost learner's permit was much more difficult than replacing a lost debit card, Warrick said. ROI is demonstrated when a service answers a clear citizen need. "It's not top down, it's bottom up," he said. "It's very different."

"The moment of truth" is what Mark Forman, Unisys' global head of public sector, called the point of service when citizens are looking for government to solve a problem. According to Forman, who was the federal government's first administrator of the Office of E-Government and Information Technology, it can be the police responding to an emergency call or a driver registering for a license at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

However, "there is no silver bullet" for making the transition to more digital, according to former General Services Administration CIO Casey Coleman, who is now the group vice president of civilian agencies at Unisys Federal Systems. She stressed that it's important to start with the end in mind and keep the focus on the user.

Larry Gillick, the deputy director of digital strategy at the Department of the Interior, was straightforward in his theory of how government often interacts with citizens. "Ninety-nine percent of what we do in government is a little irritating," he said. "There is a lot of stupid in what we do."

Digital government should lower the barrier to service, Gillick argued, making it easier for people to get what they need. Until that happens, he said, digital government hasn't truly been realized at an agency.

A version of this article first appeared on GCN, and sister site to FCW.

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