Governments have access to large amounts of critical information that could be used to drive decisions in creating effective public systems and improve societies. The public sector is under immense pressure to make better use of their data and offer new data-rich services. This episode uncovers the critical aspects of creating an effective data strategy, and why it is so important that agencies get this right.
Gina Loften, a global executive, speaker, author, and board director joins us to discuss how the public sector can leverage an effective data strategy to better serve its citizens. Gina previously served as the chief technology officer for Microsoft US and has held senior executive positions in research development, sales, and consulting at Microsoft and IBM, including as a global public sector leader.
Customers now trust digital and want to have it in all aspects of their engagements which is an opportunity for governments to think differently about new use of technology for citizen services.
We have systems that democratize access to government services in a new and different way and the ability to provide services to citizens that were most vulnerable, those that couldn't engage in services before.
Real-time data and a defined data strategy helped us during the pandemic to be resilient and responsive. The presentation of data allowed leaders to provide real-time decision-making that was critical in saving lives.
The government can be innovative and forward-thinking by using technology for the services to provide to citizens and interact with citizens - such as AI, machine learning, voice bots, natural language tools, etc.
A citizen-centric or customer-centric view is critical to complete the mission and serve the citizens of this nation. And because there are millions of citizens, you have insights that you can share to make their experience even better.
The government has a focus on security and compliance that private organizations can learn from.
Individuals give information to companies that they transact with more easily than they give it to government agencies because they feel organizations will bring value to them or make their lives easier. How can governments rise up in the value chain for citizens?
Kimberly: Welcome to Pragmatism in Practice, a podcast from Thoughtworks, where we share stories of practical approaches to becoming a modern digital business. I'm your host, Kimberly Boyd, head of global customer marketing at Thoughtworks. Evolving customer expectations have impacted every industry, including the public sector. Today we'll be discussing how the public sector can leverage an effective data strategy to better serve its citizens with our guest, Gina Loften.
I'm excited to welcome Gina, a global executive, speaker, author, and board director who joined us as a member of the Thoughtworks board in July 2021. She previously served as the chief technology officer for Microsoft US and has held senior executive positions in research development, sales, and consulting at Microsoft and IBM, including as our global public sector leader. Welcome, Gina. Thanks so much for joining us today on Pragmatism in Practice.
Gina: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Kimberly: We're here today to chat a little bit about public sector and how we can evolve that with data. I think for citizens in the US and across the world, it's probably become more aware of the successes and perhaps some of the shortcomings of our public sector services in these past few years. Would love to get your take on what are some of the opportunities for government agencies that you've observed as a result of the pandemic?
Gina: In addition to being tired of the pandemic, we've all experienced digital in a new and different way. I think the opportunity for our government, whether they be state and local or federal, is the opportunity to serve citizens in a new and different way with more data. Over the last two years, individuals have experienced sharing data, experienced digital platforms in a way that they've gotten comfortable with. We've gotten comfortable with being remote. We've gotten comfortable with transacting business, not in brick-and-mortar stores.
You don't have to go to brick-and-mortar agencies to really transact the types of services that you want. The government has an opportunity to now move with this new paradigm and this new comfort level that citizens have with sharing their data, or engaging on digital platforms in a way to provide more services. Most importantly, I think to provide services to citizens that were most vulnerable, those that couldn't engage in services before. We've now been able to have systems that democratize access to government services in a new and different way.
Kimberly: I think the increase in access, that's probably always been a top priority and goal in the public sector. One of maybe the silver linings coming out of this is that has helped accelerate some of that. We're in very transformative times. I think here at Thoughtworks, we see one of the biggest challenges in transformations is the people piece. Is getting people being willing to change, willing to experience services in a new way. That was forced upon a lot of us at least in how we relate with our public sector services.
Again, unintended silver lining, that piece of the puzzle has perhaps been accelerated faster than it normally would take. What else do you view as a crucial aspect to ramp up the effective and innovative and different use of data when it comes to public sector? The change piece, the consumer piece is already happening, but what else do these institutions and organizations really need to be thinking about in order to build on this momentum?
Gina: I think there's an opportunity. One of the things that we saw is that data has been more critical, and the importance of data, especially real-time data, became more and more critical. Think about organizations like FDA and CDC and CMS, they needed data real-time to be able to make decisions, to save citizens' lives, to provide access to vaccines, and to be able to connect the dots in new and different ways. To accelerate the ability to provide services and care during the pandemic. They needed to be able to look at data and glean insights from it that they probably would've taken months or years. We didn't have months or years because we were in the middle of a pandemic.
Thinking about how real-time data helped us be resilient and responsive or thinking about how the presentation of data allowed leaders to create and provide real-time decision-making that was critical in saving lives. A data strategy was important in that. Sometimes you take forever to create a strategy, but we needed one immediately and important ways to share data to create innovations, to help us move forward. I think those are some critical things that the pandemic accelerated for governments.
In my experience, governments have moved quite slowly in the past on some of these fronts, but we've seen the ability for the government to move quite quickly. None of that matters if we don't have privacy and info security. All of that's important. Beginning to see the agencies in the government work collectively in saying, hey, maybe we can use what one agency or one part of the government was very good at and move that into the civilian part of the government so that they can also be good at and serve the citizens in a new and different way.
Then just identifying ways to strengthen access to customer services because the customer is on the commercial side of their life. They were thinking about digital engagement in new and different ways. They were experiencing it, whether it be in retail or healthcare, in new and different ways. Now they want to do that in all aspects of their engagement. They now trust it. Just think about the number of individuals who transacted business without ever being in the same room or seeing the person except for do a screen. Now we know that citizen services can be delivered in that way.
It's an opportunity for governments to think differently about that and really work with organizations who understand digital transformation and digital engineering. Thoughtworks in a way that can help them think through those strategies and certainly execute on them quite effectively.
Kimberly: Well, I appreciate the emphasis on partners that can definitely help and have experience leading large complex organizations through transformations. Speaking of that, you sit at an interesting intersection that you've had experience serving the public sector that experienced serving the private sector. What learnings are top of mind for you that the public sector can and should leverage when it comes to thinking about data strategies and implementing those data strategies that they can learn or observe from the private sector?
Gina: Yes. The private sector moves typically a lot more quickly because for-profit organizations have to think about their survival in making money and serving clients and making revenue and serving shareholders. One of the things that I've noticed in the private sector that's moved a lot more quickly and I think the government can learn from is really the way that they've moved quickly to the cloud and how cloud converts data. It's not a luxury to move to the cloud. It's an urgency. It's a necessity.
No longer are things like AI and artificial intelligence and machine learning, they're not emerging technologies anymore. We've known about them and we've used them quite effectively in the private sector for many years and with great value and with great success in creating new products and new services or new revenue streams. We can use that with success in creating new services and better outcomes for citizens in the public sector. Learning from those things, having executives in the government trust data in a way and trust technology in a way to help them with better decision making. Just like organizations and executives in private sector organizations use data and use technology for their decision making and that affects their decision making on billions of dollars.
The government should be able to think about how are they being very innovative and forward-thinking and saying, are we using that in the same way that we can have better decision making for the services that we provide citizens? Thinking about a few things in terms of how they interact with citizens. Using voice is something not new. It's something we've done in the private sector quite frequently. Using bots and using natural language understanding.
Using all aspects of technology to say, what is the best experience that we can create for the citizen? What's the easiest and quickest way to get to them and get data and services to them? How do we do that in a way that they can trust us and that we can collect data to serve them even better the next time? I don't think we're using that effectively enough and efficiently enough or is that the part of the strategy today in government as the way it could, and certainly learning from private sector in that area.
Kimberly: When I hear you say be more innovative, typically innovation and government aren't things that we often think go hand-in-hand, but I think the time is definitely right for that. Just curious too, just hearing your response to that question, I wonder if the public sector can benefit from having a little bit more of the customer mindset whereas the private sector is very much forced to and they'll feel it in their bottom line. Typically, I think the public sector hasn't had to do that. Suggestions are, I guess, recommendations for what they can do to bring more of that customer mindset to the public sector?
Gina: Absolutely. I think as we think about federal agencies, especially civilian agencies, the citizen is at the core of what they do, and absolutely it should be. Understanding the citizen, having empathy around what is it to transact with the government, I think there's very little empathy in what it takes for a citizen to really transact business, if you will, with an agency but really having the government think about putting the citizen at the center, how easy is it for the citizen to get that service? What value are they bringing to the citizen in recommending the right services?
Sometimes people don't leverage or don't take advantage of services available to them because, quite frankly, they don't know what it is and information is not easy for them to find and services are not easy for them to take advantage of. If you have more of a citizen-centric or customer-centric view, then you'll be able to do what your mission is, and that's to serve the citizens of this nation. You'll be able to do that in a way that leverages what you know about them.
Just think about how many times we have to give the same agency the same information about us. It's very frustrating. They have ways to keep that information. In fact, I know from working with the federal government for many years, they have the data, they just aren't using the right technologies and tools to leverage it every time we work with them.
Being able to have strategies that use the innovations that are available, that use technologies that's available, but importantly, as you said, it has to be a customer-centric strategy because then you want to make that experience of the citizen, who's your customer, more engaged, more understanding, make it easy for them to use, but most importantly, you're adding value to them because you have millions of citizens. You have insights that you can share to make their experience even better. It's important for us to help the government think through what are those strategies to be able to make themselves more engaging for citizens and more useful.
Kimberly: Absolutely. It makes me think of a meme I saw recently, and it was like, "Government, you owe us money each year." It's like, "Great. Tell me how much." 'Nope. I'm not going to tell you how much. You have to figure it out on your own." "Okay."
Gina: The funny thing about that is if you figure it out wrong, they're more than happy to remind you that, no, you've made a mistake, and this is the number. Why did you give me the number upfront?
Kimberly: Absolutely. I think that's a very real example I think that all of us can relate to. We've talked a little bit about what the public sector can take from the private and perhaps put in place and make a reality. Is there anything that you see that the public sector is leading the way in or really getting right that, in turn, the private sector can learn from?
Gina: Oh, absolutely. I spent most of my career, especially the first part of my career, in cybersecurity in security. The government has a focus on security that in some of the agencies that private organizations can learn from, things about governance, things about assurance, ways in which government operates. In security, those processes and procedures that we don't really love work very well. The government is really good at that, to being able to have that level of audit and compliance and triple-checking, that's important in helping people feel secure. The government's really great at that.
Private organizations can learn from that maturity and can learn from that level of focus on not just figuring it out once, but how are you checking compliance? How are you using internal audits? How are you assuring safety and security in a way that is just par for the course of the federal government? We could certainly share between private and public those best practices, especially today, as we're thinking about how the geopolitical issues around us are affecting both government and industry.
We're sitting here worried about whether or not they're going to be cyber-attacks in our financial institutions or cyber-attacks in our critical infrastructure when that's important time for us to be sharing information and best practices to ensure that our supply chains are protected. Those are things that I think the government and the private industry and public-private partnerships could create a sense of security and assurance for all of us that we are safe and those things that we hold most dear will also be protected.
Kimberly: Absolutely. Especially in these times, I think, well, while most private organizations probably like less involvement from government, I think they've just become more inextricably entwined just as the world's really shifting on an hourly basis. Especially when it comes to cybersecurity, it seems like there's a big opportunity space there.
You had mentioned cybersecurity a little bit earlier in our conversation, and you also mentioned the notion of trust. For me, I think that's probably an interesting one when it pertains to public sector. There're fundamental services that nearly every citizen needs to take advantage of, but yet it feels like there is probably less trust with those institutions versus a brand that you're willingly deciding to interact with versus being forced to interact with. What is your point of view on what the public sector can do to engender more trust with the citizens, with its consumer base?
Gina: Trust is a funny thing about, as you said, individuals give information to companies that they transact with more easily than they give it to government agencies. I think we have to think about unpacking the emotional part of trust. They're easily giving information to organizations they feel will bring value to them or they're making their lives easier or providing them recommendations. They don't see that about our government.
The government has an opportunity to say, where are citizens very readily giving their information and trusting that their information is going to be secure, and why are they feeling that? As we said, the government often is more secure and has more stringent privacy and policies. I think that trust endears as trust in any human relationships is the value that was created together. This is an opportunity for governments to rise up in that value chain for citizens.
For instance, I wrote an article some time ago about how technology can help mental health for veterans. If the government is really focused on, especially now during a pandemic where mental health is so on top of mind for all citizens, if they can show how the work that they're doing as services to us can help us with mental health and can help us with understanding it in new and different ways, in proactively providing services and value, then that trust level goes up.
The opportunity to help those of us that are most vulnerable or citizens that have been impacting most, how do you get them back and scaling up their lives? Whether they be small business owners or whether they be our citizens that were impacted financially, how do we help them get back into being able to support their families or run their businesses? Proactively, not something that they're having to do so much of the heavy-lift in getting those services. You know what services they need, you have decades of information about most of us.
Kimberly: Don't hide it and make it a challenge.
Gina: Be value add. Then that again scales the level of trust that citizens will have with the government. We know because we've been in business that that trust relationship allows you to transact in ways that are new and unique and deeper because I'm helping you drive successful outcomes. That's what our government needs to do. A government needs to be thinking about citizens in a way that private industry thinks about their customers. How do I help you drive better outcomes in your life, especially in the things that I am most involved in or that I have the most information in or that I have the most impact in your lives? How can I help that relationship be more valuable? I think the trust dimension will go up.
Kimberly: Absolutely. I think it keeps coming back to thinking about it with that consumer, that customer focus on it. Here's what we can do for you versus come find out what we can do for you.
Gina: Here's how we're using that wonderful taxes that you've given us and being proactive on how that's benefiting you. Wouldn't that have be amazing?
Kimberly: Yes. I know, given the vastness of our governments, it's a big thing, but it's a relatively simple step to take but actually then putting it into practice is much more complex but it feels like it could open up a lot of doors of opportunity there. You mentioned the piece that you wrote on technology and using that to drive improved mental health outcomes with veterans. How else can the shift in thinking about data and thinking about innovation help the public sector operate in a way that is more aligned with ESG principles?
Gina: I think it's important that-- I'll step back and say both public and private institutions need to be thinking about ESG and sustainability. Some success factors I think for all organizations thinking about it is really having a clear roadmap of what that means for your organization or your industry and how you want to play in it. It's important to have the right leadership because the leadership has to get engaged, has to be not just talking points from their marketing organization. It has to be a part of the culture of the organization and what they believe their responsibility is in delivering into not just the markets they serve but in the communities they serve.
ESG is not just about the financial piece of it, it is about how you're impacting the lives in the communities in which we live and serve. Then how are you testing it and how are you scaling it? You can't just one time get it right.
Kimberly: We do this [crosstalk] once.
Gina: Then all one great thing. How are you testing it? How are you scaling? How are you holding yourselves accountable to that and setting bold ambitions about being better and better and better? because the more and more responsibility will come on organizations because you'll have some financial benefits that you can apply in these social contexts to be able to help even more people.
Then just the mindset of the employees in addition to the leadership team. There's some things about ESG, about if you think about doing good, doing well financially, how do you do good? Then that intersection. That intersection of doing well and doing good is that sweet spot of ESG, and no one's getting it perfect, but some are getting it right because they understand that intersection is where it's important.
They're not just thinking about ESG because of the financial outcomes of the organization, they're not just thinking about how they're impacting justice and equity and equality and helping the most vulnerable citizens in the communities in which they live and serve. They're thinking of about the intersection of both of those things, and they're also allowing their employees whose mission and who they're different today. The new employees are focused more so socially than I think they were 20 years ago or 30 years ago, and they're picking organizations who also see that as an important mission to take.
It's not just lip service. It has to be shown in the leadership team, it has to be shown in the boardroom, it has to be shown in the diversity of your organization and the causes that you support and people are going to call you on it in new and different ways. It can't just be great taglines, it has to show evidence of how you're moving forward in climate and environment and social and governance. You have to make sure that it is not, again, just lip service, but in the way that the culture of the organization acts at all levels.
Kimberly: Absolutely. Have to talk the talk, walk the talk, have your people eat, sleep, and breathe it. I love how you summed it up as it's the doing good and doing well together. I think that's a fantastic way to think about and not something just for the public sector to think about. I think every organization needs to be challenging itself or where they can come together to do good and do well. I think that's a great way to wrap up our conversation on the opportunity that exists for public sector, focusing on the customer, having that top of mind, and looking for that intersection can drive I think a lot of opportunity that all of us can look forward to as consumers of those public services.
Gina: Absolutely. I'd leave with also leveraging technology in a way that we haven't in the past. What the pandemic has given us is the opportunity to accelerate how technology is a part of business strategy in the private sector. It should also be a part of the business and mission strategy in the public sector. We have the technology to do so much more, we have the technology to put citizens in the center in a new and different way and to provide access and democratize access and really help the most vulnerable of our citizens in a new and different way.
That should be top of mind for all of us, and especially our government leaders and agencies. Then as we wrap that into our focus on ESG, that just goes together in terms of putting citizens at the center, what public sector due and putting at the center, what are we doing with the environment? What are we doing with the climate? How are we focusing on that? How is our focus on social injustice aligned with the mission of what organizations are doing and how are you serious about it in a way that could be tasted and scaled and then certainly governance in the most senior parts of your organization, are you thinking about that?
Are you thinking about it in the boardroom and private industry? Are you thinking about it in the most serious conversations of government executives? Are you working together at the benefit of, again, who's at the center of why we do this in the public sector? Is the citizen. Are our government leaders thinking about that when they're making those important decisions?
Kimberly: I think they definitely were forced to think about it more than they ever had before these past few years, so hopefully that positive momentum continues to build, and we'll see more customer-centricity and technology at the center of everything that we can expect from the public sector.
Gina, thank you so much for joining us today. I've really appreciated your insights and your experience from working in this sector. Thanks to our audience for joining us for this episode of Pragmatism in Practice. If you enjoyed the show, help spread the word by rating us on your podcast platform. Please listen and download similar podcast at thoughtworks.com/podcasts.