How five governments pursued digital transformation – and what you can learn from them

If Cathy Simpson, public sector vice president of digital consulting firm T4G Ltd. had a message for the government workers at ITWC’s Digital Transformation Awards on June 14, it was this: Act as if you’re in the private sector.

T4G public sector vice president Cathy Simpson wants to see governments pursue digital transformation as aggressively as the private sector.

That means acknowledging the impact of tech giants such as Inc., Google Inc., and Apple Inc. on consumer expectations, and matching them accordingly.

“If I want a driver’s licence, that’s a product,” she says. “If I want to look up my tax bill, that’s a service. It should be as easy to apply for one and check the other as ordering from Amazon or searching on Google.”

“Too many governments sit behind this notion of, ‘it’s too hard,’ or ‘customers don’t expect it’ – they do,” she continues. “They’re getting it with Apple TV and Amazon and Google and Facebook and LinkedIn, and if governments can’t make it that easy for me to look up my tax bill they risk becoming irrelevant.”

To steer her listeners in the right direction, Simpson showcased five public sector organizations that illustrated the type of private-sector thinking she was advocating: the city of Boston’s Boston311 app, New York City’s digital division; Estonia’s digital ID program, “E-Estonia”; Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO)’s Save On Energy campaign; and Saint Johns, New Brunswick’s community data strategy.

The Boston311 app

Simply put, this mobile app allows residents to report just about anything to city staff, including litter, potholes, vandalism, and stalled traffic, and allows them to look up reports posted elsewhere in the city.

Courtesy Cathy Simpson/T4G

The result, Simpson says, is an app that empowers citizens and helps them feel like they’re contributing to their city’s well-being.

New York City ties its economy to technology

Before discussing New York City’s digital leadership, Simpson shared a quote from former mayor Michael Bloomberg: “The future of the global economy, in every industry, is tied to technology – and the future for cities that recognize this fact is very bright.”

The city’s road map to digital change included not only the appointment of a digital officer in 2011, but a digital roadmap comprising open government, citizen engagement, education, industry collaboration, and public access.

Today the city is a leading global innovation engine – with an app that, like Boston, is envied by many in the private sector.


When it gained independence from the former Soviet Union, this eastern European nation found itself with the unique opportunity of being able to build its digital foundation from the ground up. Its solution: “e-Estonia,” a digital ID card they can use in every facet of daily life, including:

  • Border identification
  • Digital signature
  • Postsecondary applications
  • Business registration
  • Government decision-making
  • Court procedures
  • Police communication
  • Medical prescriptions

IESO’s “Save On Energy” website

T4G had a hand in building this site, Simpson said, developing a scalable solution in Microsoft Dynamics that allowed the organization’s customers – more than 700,000 in the website’s first year alone – to apply for energy conservation programs.

In fact, by the end of its first year research showed that 61 per cent of Ontarians were aware of the site, greatly exceeding its initial target.

Saint John’s 2016 – 2017 community data strategy

T4G had a hand in this project too, Simpson said, which aims to make the New Brunswick capital – the location of the T4G office which employs Simpson – Canada’s most connected community by employing technology and a community big data strategy.

Similar to New York City, T4G helped Saint John develop a digital roadmap that so far includes a $1.6 million investment in infrastructure, technology, open data, and education.

“When you see businesses starting to embrace data to solve problems and better understand the way their business is operating, you need people with these skills,” Simpson says. “So we’ve set out to attract those people, and their companies to our region.”

Think from your constituents’ point of view

In addition to the case studies, Simpson provided her listeners with a series of guidelines aimed at helping public sector employees strategically plan from their constituents’ point of view, starting with the government’s primary purpose: Make their lives easier.

  • Know me: Base your services on your constituents’ needs.
  • Make it mobile: People access their smartphones over 150 times a day and their smart watches 80 times a day. All technology needs to be built with these platforms in mind.
  • Make me smarter: Let citizens know in advance if services are going to change. Proactively update them regarding orders, appointments, prescriptions, or services.
  • Fit it into my life: Make sure they aren’t forced to go out of their way to access this information.
  • Save me time: From Netflix’s menu to Amazon’s one-click ordering and Apple Pay’s one-touch ID verification, the most popular apps are the ones that save their users’ time, Simpson says.
  • Let me do it: The majority of customers would rather use a self-serve menu on a government website, or contact a bot through social media, than call customer service, Simpson says – yet too many governments prioritize the latter.
  • Make it better: Act on customer feedback, both positive and negative, Simpson says. Only 26 per cent of companies do.

“Think about online banking,” she says. “If my bank forces me to call in about something, I get frustrated. The first thing I tell them: ‘I should be able to do this by email or on my smartphone app or or on the web!'”

“And if I can do that online banking or online retail, I should be able make that happen with government transactions too,” she continues. “I don’t know why it should be any different.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Eric Emin Wood
Eric Emin Wood
Former editor of turned consultant with public relations firm Porter Novelli. When not writing for the tech industry enjoys photography, movies, travelling, the Oxford comma, and will talk your ear off about animation if you give him an opening.

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