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What is the ‘Smart’ in Smart Government?


October 25, 2016

Is “smart government” a paradigm shift: new, exciting and disruptive, or: incremental – a rebranding of traditional technology? With so many late 20th century giants, like industrial manufacturers and legacy ERP vendors hopping on the “smart” bandwagon, it’s hard not to be a touch cynical. You can’t help but think “smart government” is yet another underwhelming government digital trend like “e-government”, “government 2.0″ and “open government.”

Digital Transformation

The problem with technologists is their focus on the “digital” and less on the “transformation.” More specifically, the material that I read tends to look at transformation as a traditional change management exercise. There is a school of thought that realizes that the transformation in digital is more profound. Dion Hinchliffe, a speaker at FISC 2016 earlier this year, sees a need to augment culture change ideas to support digital.


The lack of adoption of government digital adoption has come from analog thinking – the notion of making existing processes more efficient or less expensive. A “digital mindset” requires a citizen-centric approach to radically improve government service delivery and public investments. There will be no “smart” without leveraging ideas like design thinking, customer experience and agile development.

Why “Smart” Now?

“Smart Government” and “Smart Cities” appear to have more traction than previous digital initiatives. It’s not that we’ve finally learned our digital lesson – it’s that there are compelling forces to nudge adoption:

  • Sustainability: the increasing recognition of the impact of using too many resources to support growth, with the need to improve environmental resilience and citizen well-being to prevent conflict
  • Globalization: the impact of trade and competition provides the opportunity for financially sustainable growth and innovation
  • Future of Work: the impact of digital technologies is changing the nature of education, employment and manufacturing placing significant regulatory and reform burdens on governments
  • Trust: the traditional paternal relationship between government and citizens has resulted in lower levels of trust in the world of social media, meaning that governments need to improve services

What is “Smart”?

Technologists see “Smart” as the intersection of SMACT technologies: social, mobile, analytics, cloud and the Internet of Things (IoT). IoT is a particular driver for Smart Cities. Technologies do not make for “smart”. “Smart Government” is about:

  • Citizen-centric: the reform of processes and silos to provide an effective user experience that improves the efficiency of government to citizen interactions
  • Data-driven: the ability to take data from all sources to make data-driven rather than dogma-driven decisions
  • Performance-focused: the focus on outcomes rather than inputs as a more effective set of Key Performance Indicators
  • Long-term: the need to consider that pay-back benefits for smart government tends to be long-term, where improved planning and financial scenario management is required beyond election cycles

These last three points leads me to conclude that public financial management is the foundation for smart government. A new form of public accounting may be required to value infrastructure assets like roads, bridges, and national parks as a more effective way to calculate public investment returns. This will also provide a useful counterpoint to the current public-private partnership (PPP) mania. PPPs can mislead governments to consider short-term gains at the expense of persistent and long-term gains. Education systems and future innovation potential should also be calculated in the same way that many firms are valued based on expected future returns.

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Doug Hadden

Doug Hadden

Executive Vice President, Innovation at FreeBalance
Doug is responsible for identifying new global markets, new technologies and trends, and new and enhanced internal processes. Doug leads a cross-functional international team that is responsible for developing product prototypes and innovative go-to-market strategies.

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