Since FWD50 launched, we’ve run a survey of digital government professionals from around the world. The feedback we collect guides our content throughout the year, and we offer it to everyone who’s proposing a talk at the November conference. With longitudinal data, we can also see what’s changing year-on-year.
Who answered the survey?
We received over a hundred responses, with nearly 70% of respondents working for a national or federal government. 10% came from the private sector and 14% from provincial governments.
7% of respondents were at the Executive Director level, 4% at the Senior Executive Director, and 3% at the Director General level of government.
While the responses came from a wide variety of government functions, the most significant contributors to this year’s survey were Project or program managers (27%); Policy design and writing (22%); Software development (8%); Data science (8%); and Systems engineering or architecture (3%.)
The responses came predominantly from within Canada, although we had participants from several U.S. States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Japan.
98% of respondents had completed some form of post-secondary education, with nearly 90% having finished university. This is the highest rate of responses we’ve received from people who have completed some form of post-graduate education.
The largest groups of respondents worked in IT and technical services; Employment and social development; Procurement; Defense; and Revenue.
Now that we know who’s responding, it’s time to get to the questions themselves.
What policies are most important?
We asked respondents to rank a number of policy areas in terms of relative priority. Because people tend to rank everything as “important,” it’s useful to compare the relative, rather than absolute, responses to get a sense of what matters most.
We’ve been running the survey for a while now, and for much of it we’ve asked about similar policy priorities (although we’ve added and removed some policies, so not all responses can be compared across years.) Here’s how those priorities have changed over time:
These have shifted over time towards making government systems more resilient—climate change, digital preparedness, digital rights, and tackling fake news—although providing services for the most vulnerable rose dramatically in 2020, likely due to the Pandemic, and has remained a top priority. Meanwhile, dealing with the economic consequences of automation and integrating AI tools ranked relatively low—it will be interesting to see how this changes in the coming months with rapid advances in Large Language Models and tools like ChatGPT.
Since we can’t anticipate everyone’s policy concerns, we also ask respondents what topics we missed. These responses are submitted in the respondents’ language, and then grouped by topic.
Some notable feedback among these open-ended answers:
- Several respondents mentioned Canada’s many languages, and a reconsideration of language policy in light of ubiquitous computer-assisted translation, making an effort to include indigenous languages and those spoken by new immigrants.
- Many respondents prioritized education, particularly around modernizing the government workforce and making it easier for the less tech-savvy to live in a digital society.
- Several respondents discussed healthcare at length, with one urging increased access to less common treatments and psychedelics for therapeutic purposes.
What technologies matter most?
The following chart shows the distribution of responses for the various technologies we asked about. Assistive devices, cloud computing, open data, and AI were the clear winners here, with nearly 75% of respondents rating them a 4 or 5 on 5 in terms of importance.
We can also analyze trends over time; there has not been dramatic change, with a couple of exceptions:
- Blockchain and digital ledgers have dropped in importance.
- 5G and fast broadband importance has declined.
Surprisingly, chatbots and conversational AI are low on the technology list, despite recent innovations.
Innovation in the public sector
The vast majority of respondents (84%) said the government did not innovate enough.
Respondents cited outdated processes and risk aversion as the main culprits for this.
To address this, we asked respondents how they would spend an additional 10% of each employee’s salary. Training, tools, better management, and increased pay won out over firing under-performing employees or hiring more workers.
The remaining questions were open-ended, so we’re summarizing them here.
What one structural change to government would produce the greatest improvement to service delivery?
Responses fell into several categories:
- Cultural change that allows innovation and experimentation with greater trust for employees.
- Investing in talent retention and changing the way people are hired.
- Smaller, more specialized departments that focus on service delivery and reduce internal inefficiencies.
- Automation of repetitive and predictable tasks, and a reduction in meetings and overall bureaucracy.
- An emphasis on design thinking, usability, and outcomes, with some respondents urging mandatory user research and testing.
- Digital identity and consistent services across all levels of government, with a single sign-on.
- Managers who understand technology.
- Replacing workers who are unable to make the switch to digital platforms or slow down digital transformation.
Several respondents also asked for the return of a ministerial leader in charge of digital adoption and transformation.
Finish this sentence: “The main reason governments don’t prioritize digital services is …”
Responses here were varied, but several themes stood out:
- A lack of understanding and awareness of what is possible among leaders.
- Inability to tie work to outcomes in a concrete way, which makes it hard to learn what “good” looks like.
- Fear of chance, complacency, and a desire to “not make mistakes” above all else.
- Political issues, changing goals, and a lack of commitment to long-term objectives that span multiple elections.
- Lack of competition or consequence—the government is a monopoly, because residents and citizens have no alternative, and there is little managers can do to remove under-performing workers.
- The daunting challenge of transformation seems insurmountable, and few people know where to begin.
A few respondents countered that, in fact, the government does prioritize digital delivery—but that good digital services are hard to deliver. One also observed that the real challenge is better policymaking, rather than transactional services.
Some general observations from the data:
- Sentiment has shifted towards resiliency, reliability, and dealing with the uncertainty that democracies are facing today.
- There is a sense that fear and paralysis are preventing true innovation from happening.
- While we’ve left the hardest part of the COVID pandemic, it’s taking time to digest the rapid technological advancements such as remote work.
- Relatively few respondents prioritized conversational interfaces, AI, and automation despite rapid advances in those fields that promise to transform software and digital interaction.
- Staffing issues abound: Compensation, retention, hiring, upskilling, and firing under-performing workers all figured more prominently in this year’s feedback than in past years.
We’ll visit these themes throughout 2023. If you’re reading this survey for inspiration on what talk to propose, hopefully you now have a sense of topics that the FWD50 community wants to hear more about.