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December 14, 2023

Government tech can be great. Adoption rates, not so much

The public sector is surprisingly effective at building digital solutions. It needs to do more to get people to use them.

In the news

New York City is awash in programs, apps, websites and text reminders for people to enroll in health insurance. And yet the push to bring healthcare to more residents is decidedly non-technological. Instead, it comes down to a helpful human sitting behind a folding table. Here’s the question: Does that indicate failure, or success?

This fascinating story uses New York as a lens for studying the fraught relationship between government and tech. While technology “presents unprecedented opportunities to bridge the gap between government programs and the people they serve,” it also introduces challenges: “How do we modernize without leaving people behind? How do we increase access without unduly burdening citizens? How do we increase efficiency … while still protecting sensitive data?”

The article notes that while it’s easy to say technology should be able to solve a given problem, it’s far more complex to create laws, regulations and agencies to make the vision a reality. And making it all work reliably and at scale is harder still. (Some will remember the embarrassing teething pains of the launch in 2013 in the US. Fewer than 10 people were able to sign up the day it went live.)

“Today, technology is not only about managing systems but also about spearheading innovation and embracing digital transformation,” writes a senior tech executive. “The pace of change is exhilarating, yet daunting.”

The Cognizant take

The northern English city of Leeds may not match New York in scale, but with a diverse, rapidly changing population of about 800,000 and an ambitious array of tech programs, it’s a significant metropolitan area. Sarah Tulip, Senior Director and Head of Northern Delivery Centers at Cognizant, has close ties to both the city and its technology community.

Tulip points out that when it comes to tech-enabled government, poverty is upstream of all other factors. “The people who need these programs the most often feel the most isolated,” she says. “They lack access to devices, to connectivity. I spoke with a woman who used to count on her daughter to get her prescriptions filled using an app. The daughter has moved 200 miles away. What is she supposed to do now?”

One challenge for getting technology to those who need it is the sheer complexity of government. Nations, states, counties, cities and agencies all have a bureaucracy of their own, Tulip notes. Even when there are no intramural struggles or jealousies involved—and there frequently are—well-intentioned efforts have a hard time breaking through the noise.

Tulip points to a program called 100% Digital Leeds as an effort to do just that. Administered by the city council, the program pulls together public- and private-sector organizations to offer myriad public services. One early lesson, Tulip says, is to “measure success through inclusive growth. It’s not about GDP, it’s about how many people they take on the journey.”

Risk aversion is another major factor when government tackles digital initiatives. “If you make a mistake in the public sector, it immediately becomes widely known,” Tulip says. “And the government has a greater burden than the private sector when it comes to protecting citizens’ personal information.”

With multiple challenges and high stakes, including citizens’ health and welfare, perhaps the lesson from Leeds and New York is that governments must do whatever it takes to boost adoption rates. And if that means more volunteers and more folding tables, so be it.

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