​Automation, machine learning to shape the future of government: Gartner

Gartner believes governments now have the opportunity in the digital service economy to make strategic investments in IT or risk perpetuating suboptimal business and service models.

Governments have been really good at looking in the rear view mirror, be it reporting on results and evaluating what has already happened. However, Rick Howard, research vice president at Gartner, believes the way forward for governments is to instead be able to predict what is about to happen.

According to Howard, automating more decision-making tasks will see government workforces freed up to focus on higher value work and achieving their respective policy or legislative objectives.

"Analytics becomes the single greatest opportunity to take the wealth of information that is locked up in all of its transactional systems," Howard said.

Speaking at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo on the Gold Coast, Howard said that with a few jurisdictions already experimenting with the likes of IBM's Watson and Microsoft's Sam and Cortana, virtual personal assistants will become the frontline interface between government and citizens.

"What you'll see as these machines become smarter, more data is fed into them, more real-world experience is extrapolated from them, what you'll see is fewer humans interacting with transactions," he said.

Howard said the use of analytics at all stages of business activity and service delivery allows government agencies to shift to autonomous business processes and business intelligence capabilities that will help humans make better decisions based on context in real-time.

This concept, tag-lined "analytics everywhere" by Gartner, is one of the 10 strategic technology trends the analyst firm believes governments should be implementing to drive transformational change in an historically slow-moving industry.

Gartner predicts that spending by national, federal, and local governments worldwide on technology products and services will tip to $430 billion in this year, growing to $476.1 billion by 2020.

"By 2020, 30 percent of the transactions we engage in today will no longer exist," Howard added. "The focus is now on effectiveness and outcomes, and the contribution that technology makes to the operations of government."

Right beside analytics sits the smart machine trend, which Howard said government IT leaders must explore to enhance existing business practices. He said this has the potential to lay the foundations for new public services or ways of accomplishing business goals altogether.

Howard said it is the algorithms that will feed the smart machines, but called it a "very scary" proposition as there is little to no human intervention.

"We really need to educate our elected officials as to what the value this type of automation or machine learning can bring," he said.

"For a change, government is on equal footing. Government has always lagged in terms of technology adoption ... that doesn't matter anymore because the future is what's going to make or break our institutions."

In addition to the ideas of analytics everywhere and smart machines, Gartner recommends that governments work on multichannel citizen engagement as another trend that will provide consumers with the capability of accessing a full range of services through various avenues such as online via chat, mobile apps, contact centres, and bricks and mortar service centres.

"Citizen engagement is something a lot of governments are focused on, and rightfully so, but the truth is, the vast majority of citizens don't necessarily want to be engaged by government," Howard said.

As a result, he said that engagement needs to be seamless as possible in order to do it properly.

Similarly, as governments face constant pressure to improve service delivery and save costs, Gartner believes implementing the trend of digital platforms will reduce effort and facilitate user-centric design.

Bouncing off this is the idea of citizen electronic identification (e-ID), a trend which Howard said governments should look into as the way of confirming online authentication and identity proofing, as in-person verification methods are becoming outdated.

With a constantly evolving security environment, Gartner said government CIOs must adopt threat-aware, risk-based approaches that allow governments to make informed decisions about risks.

"In the digital service economy, government must make strategic investments in IT or risk perpetuating suboptimal business and service models that are financially unsustainable in the long term," Howard said. "Government CIOs who are too slow to adopt the technology innovations that are transforming private sector service industries will increase business risk and cost, while compromising the mission of their organisations."

The importance of government leading by example when it comes to digitising a workforce was highlighted by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull when he unveiled the nation's AU$1.1 billion National Innovation and Science Agenda last December.

The innovation agenda is centred on four principles: Building the science culture and capital, strengthening collaboration, encouraging science and innovation talent, and government leading as an exemplar.

As a key milestone, the government launched a new Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) earlier this month, which will be tasked with expanding its digital agenda and overseeing the rollout of improved capabilities to users of government services.

"We are more mobile, more connected, and more digitally-reliant than ever before. Government needs to consistently challenge itself, to ensure world-leading practices are being employed to make Australians' lives simpler," Assistant Minister for Digital Transformation Angus Taylor said when announcing the DTA.

"As more government services are digitised, integration across agencies is paramount to delivering world's best practice. Importantly, the new agency will comprise a small high-calibre program management office to manage strategy and manage integration of the digital transformation agenda across all of government."

Taylor expects the DTA will build on the success of the Digital Transformation Office, which was established early last year to unify government agencies and services online.

Disclosure: Asha McLean travelled to Gartner Symposium/ITxpo as a guest of Gartner.