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Digital transformation: towards a ‘netflixization’ of the public sector?

Published on Monday, August 1st 2022

Digital technology is evident today as a strategic issue and a collective performance tool, as we concluded in our report Digital Flow 2021. Our study has shown that the majority of Belgian leaders have accelerated the digital transformation of their organizations, in parallel with the evolution of the market and society. On the one hand, they do so to better converge the expectations of organizations and employees – particularly in terms of autonomy, working conditions and collaboration – but also to better meet customer needs. However, we believe that the digital transition must be approached in a more global way to make it a lever for positive impacts on society as a whole.


It is in this more global spirit that the City of Brussels has switched to digital technology, explains René-Jean Ducluzeau, Director Program Management & Transformation at i-CITY: “We have brought together our services and websites on a single portal where we orchestrate no less than 45 defined step-by-step processes. The citizen is the main actor and has a real-time view of the progress. We managed to create a certain dynamism with citizens, and they are less dependent on our agents. Public services in Netflix mode, one might say.”

For example, a citizen of Brussels who rents an apartment from the City will register in the catalog “Vivre à Bruxelles.” If the citizen declares a birth, the City will automatically offer a new, larger apartment. So it is an intelligent public service with suggestions for citizens, just like the Netflix catalog.

Integrating the clusters

The Public Service of Wallonia (PSW) still has a long way to go: it has 18 portals to which citizens can connect, but these are all unique clusters and citizens must find their way there. What SPW CEO David Wattecamps wants to solve as soon as possible: “In my view, the priority of digital transformation is to facilitate user procedures and searches for information in a single portal. It will be necessary to create coherent partnerships in the various public services to achieve this, otherwise we risk being overtaken by commercial services.

The creation of a single portal is also very topical at BRIC. Yves Mathonet, Head of Digital Transformation at BRIC, is ambitious: “I admit that we still have a reactive approach. We can be more proactive by developing more knowledge concerning citizens and their life factors. We intend to accompany them in the different stages of their lives: if they notify us online of the birth of a child, we can promptly plan nursery registration, for example. It is therefore a matter of gathering as much information as possible and using the data in the right way. As public services, we enjoy a great deal of trust, but we must avoid simply facilitating the mere googlization of our services. Citizens are used to being proactively informed. That is our goal.”

The digital divide

This proactive approach is complicated on the job market. “Unfortunately, we remain in a reactive pattern. This is partly due to a strong digital divide in the Region, but also to the scale and cost of the digital transformation of public services. We carry out legal decisions including the use of digital technology for the support or training of job seekers. It goes without saying that we would be better able to support them if we could anticipate the demands of our citizens with digital technology and therefore work more proactively, but it’s a challenge,” explains Thierry Derycke, Director Digital Transformation at Forem.

It is a rather similar story at Actiris, its Brussels counterpart. “The searcher first needs to be registered to be able to receive unemployment benefits; the rest comes after,” says Actiris IT Director Marguerite Frébutte. “It is up to us to analyze how to reverse the trend, but it is complicated in the context of a digital or even linguistic divide. We work extensively on user experience on our platforms, but we only reach 50% of searchers.”

For the two IT managers, digital technology could be the solution, with a multichannel approach in addition to face-to-face meetings. However, they insist that it will also be necessary to help citizens use digital technology effectively. In addition, both public and private sectors have flooded citizens with email. “The response rates are worrying, so conversion is not easy.” Add to this the federal government’s eBox systems, various municipal and regional portals, etc. and the citizen gets lost.

Gamified apps

Jean-Christophe Armslag, Head of Smarketing at BRIC and therefore an expert in the field, confirms that the public must reinvent their communication: “We must try to provide a better civic experience for everyone. Communication is crucial in this equation. It will be necessary to cut down on “polluting” or bombarding citizens with so many push-type messages: it favors a lookout approach. Citizens will only search for the information when the need presents itself.

The marketing specialist is considering converging public and private communications via smartphone apps. “A touch of gamifying will make them more accessible and light. Today, we connect to public sector systems out of necessity. Why not have an app for both bike sharing and public services?”

Public-private marriage

Bpost has already approached BRIC for such co-development. The idea doesn’t seem unreasonable. After all, public services still have a relationship of trust. This trust capital did not succeed with the COVID-Safe app,” says Thierry Derycke with surprise. “While there is a huge paradox between what we entrust to Google and the sharing of data in the context of the coronavirus, the legal analysis behind it was not valued by citizens.”

David Wattecamps’ response: “We can’t just focus solely on our own services. As public servants, we are also – and above all – obliged to share. I’m drawn to the concept of a shared app with a system of thematic tiles, and there are indeed constraints, in particular legal ones.”

From e-gov to digital transformation

A shared system would already make it possible to standardize authentication, as in the case of Brussels. Citizens could easily have access, via a single entrance, to the portals of different authorities. It was an omnichannel exercise that has in fact paid off for the City of Brussels, but has also cost a lot in terms of time, money and reflection. To be considered?

“At this level, there is greater pooling in France. Belgium is still at the e-government stage. Yes, we have digitized a significant part of public service, but we really have to get into a higher gear,” Deryck believes. Doesn’t the solution lie in a finer integration of the public and private? We are in the era of open data…

Digital insecurity, a barrier to development… like teaching?

In the public services, the belief is that transverse digitizing deserves to be considered. Be that as it may, citizens’ digital experience also depends on digital insecurity. In 2021, the King Baudouin Foundation noted significant inequalities relating to access, skills and the use of digital technology in Belgium, which complicates the reintegration of job seekers into the labor market.

Marguerite Frebutte: “In fact, the insecurity is found on several levels. Just because you have a driver’s license doesn’t mean you get to your destination easily. We intend to contribute to the Region’s economic health and social cohesion by increasing the employment rate. But there are clearly upstream concerns already, within classical education. Does it prepare the profiles companies need?”

And David Wattecamps adds: “Don’t we have a developmental problem? The educational sectors have changed little in twenty years.”

In terms of digital material, there has not been a great influx of classical education”, confirms Thierry Derycke. Shouldn’t we be thinking about shortening studies and activating continuing education – certainly more up to date? We are going in the opposite direction today. How are we going to switch? I’m afraid it’s the sector itself that has to take the initiative.”

Digital transformation transforms the civil servant

It’s true that young people are looking for a training perspective; they do not want to code for 40 years but to flourish in the company. What’s more, meaning and societal participation play an increasingly important role as well. At BIRC, technical skills represent only 20% of the those sought. The organization relies more on communication and collaboration skills.

Everyone insists that permanent training will be necessary if we want to support the accelerating digital transformation. The world is changing, we now have more data. This also changes the job of civil servants, who must now achieve performance indicators. Digital technology has reversed the trend: it is the citizen who puts the civil servant to work. “Digital transformation can raise resistance to change within the administration,” points out David Wattecamps.

“Reallocation between distribution channels may be a first resistance. The fairness of result is not always the equality of means, digital technology allows more efficiency of better distributed means,” confirms Thierry Derycke. “It is a question of underlining the added value of the civil servant in the communication, the human interaction with the citizens, the high-added-value tasks. We all have our eyes riveted on the need for digital transformation, but we will have to support the change all the way through.”

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