From paperwork to public service.
Felipe Bravo, professor of forestry planning at the University of Valladolid, gives us his insider view on how Spain’s public sector is tackling digital transformation and what still needs to be done.
What’s your vision for the digital transformation of the public sector?
I think that the first thing to do is define what we mean by digital transformation. I feel like it’s become this buzzword that everyone understands differently.
For some, digital transformation is having a website. For others, it's moving the processes we used to do on paper to a digital system. I think that digital transformation, in the lighter sense of the word, has already been done. All the different government bodies have their websites, they all have procedures that they citizens can do on apps or online.
What hasn’t been done, and what I think is the true goal here, is making all the paperwork fully digital. There are still tons of processes that start online but end up with a big pile of paper. Things people print, sign, scan and then send online. This whole process between the paper and the virtual should be done completely on computers.
I also think that the public sector is lacking in people who are creative with digital technology. And it’s not that they’re just lacking programmers or developers, but people who understand what we’re doing, why and for whom. These decisions shouldn’t just affect the IT departments. They should be more transversal and affect all the departments.
It’s true that although the public sector may be moving more slowly than businesses, they are taking steps forward. Do you think that this leap forward in technology and innovation is happening?
I think that in Spain, they still need a little push. I can also say it depends on the neighborhood, for example, when it comes to open data or how fast things move. In general, from ministries, the central government is pushing regional governments to start with innovation already. For example, La Rioja is already well ahead in terms of spatial data infrastructure and the region of Castile and Leon is also great for open data. Others are still behind the curve.
What do you think will be key to accelerating this transformation?
I believe that personnel training and the creation of a culture of evaluating applications will be important. By that I mean having the ability to evaluate whether or not a technology or application is really going to help. The public sector has a lot of inequalities within it. It’s huge and you can’t really generalize, but for me, that’s where you have to start — with a global vision of what you’re developing and why. We need to solve some specific issues and situations that have gone neglected for years.
At the university, we adapted really quickly to the pandemic, for example, with virtual classrooms. The key is in how we use these tools, these technologies, to start moving towards a more digital world and not just addressing old problems with the digital.
Do you think the public sector can put the users at the center?
I believe it’s really important to have this as the clear goal. In the case of universities, during the pandemic it was clear that there was the will to not let the situation get the best of us. So we installed a system that we had already been working on for online classes. It took a lot of effort on the part of the professors and the students to make it work. It certainly wasn’t perfect, but it served its purpose and that was an important step forward. Then in the next semester, we saw that everything we learned by necessity had a purpose and was used to continue improving.
What I want to say by this is that we need people or groups who have the culture of being able to evaluate the use cases for these applications and work as efficiently as possible.
On the other hand, users within the administration need to see that technology serves a purpose. It’s not just ticking a “digital box.” For instance, if you have a person at a health center in charge of filling data into a database, and they know it will take them a long time but they don’t know what it’s for or how the data will be used, it may seem like a waste of time. All of these processes should have a clear goal, a well-communicated goal. High school teachers have to fill out a huge pile of forms. But if they don’t know where the data goes or how it’s used, it doesn’t make sense to them. These professionals tend to think: is my job teaching or is my job filling out forms just to show that the school is modern? I think this is a big part of it. Tell them what the data that they’re sharing is used for, show them the results of it and give it all a purpose so that it can be improved.
In your experience in a university, what do you think is the ideal path forward to achieving a genuine digital transformation in the public sector?
Purpose, again, is the barrier. What is this for? How does it help my students learn? What change or improvement does this application offer?
As a teacher who uses university applications, we get a lot of technology training but everything changes super fast. Just when you’ve figured out a program, all of the sudden there’s an update or it changes altogether. We’ve already used four different platforms to interact with our students. Some are great, others not so much. Basically, I think that the process needs to be as simple as possible because, at the end of the day, most people in the public sector are not technology experts. I truly believe that the administration needs to figure out and clearly express the purpose of all of this technology.
Then, on the other hand, the public sector doesn’t have a great culture in terms of retaining talent. Change has to start with salaries and the culture. I think we are still very hierarchical, and there is very little room for innovation.