What you’re thinking about digital government in 2022

This is the sixth year we’ve surveyed public servants worldwide about the state of digital government, technology, and modernization. The results help guide our content throughout the year, and guide folks who propose talks for our content online and at our annual event.


Who answered the survey?

We received over a hundred responses, from fifteen countries, this year. Once again, roughly half the respondents were from Federal governments.

The top roles our respondents have are in program management (roughly half of respondents); policy design, systems engineering data analysis, and service delivery. In the private sector, top respondent roles included sales & marketing and consulting services. Note that we aggregated some respondent-entered titles to consolidate the results.

14.2% of respondents had an executive role in government including executive director, senior executive director, director general, or assistant deputy minister, an increase of 2% from last year’s survey.

While most responses came from the Canadian capital region, we heard from the US, UK, Bulgaria, Nairobi, New Zealand and elsewhere.

Roughly 40% of respondents had completed a Masters or Ph.D, down around 10% from 2021.

The majority of respondents worked in technical services, although many other groups were represented:


What policies are most important?

As in past years, we began by asking for the relative priorities of policy areas. Because people tend to rate everything highly, it’s easier to understand this data based on how far above or below the average it is.

It’s interesting to look at how these changed from last year: Preparing for climate change, tackling fake news and disinformation, improving natural resource management and reducing healthcare costs with tech were more important, while making better fiscal/budget decisions, dealing with the economic consequences of automation, and providing a public space for free speech declined in relative importance.

We let respondents add policy areas they’d like to see on the list as well:

Note that responses were entered primarily in English.

What technologies matter most?

We offered respondents several technologies and asked them to rate their relative importance to governments. 

When comparing these results to 2021, the relative importance of open data and transparency increased significantly, while ubiquitous mobile working and blockchain and digital ledgers increased somewhat. 5G/Fast broadband, sensors, and the Internet of Things declined in importance. We’ve been tracking these longitudinally for four years now:

We also asked about the importance of low-code/no-code tools, which have become increasingly commonplace in recent years. This was our first time asking about the technology, which scored slightly higher than AI (3.95/5) in the survey.


Why can’t government innovate at a speed citizens want?

When it comes to innovation, the responses are clear: Government doesn’t innovate enough:

We asked which of five factors was the main reason for an inability to deliver technology as fast as denizens would like. Inability hire and experiment were seen as less of a challenge than risk aversion, outdated processes, or non-technical managers.


Learning

If the early years of FWD50 were about what digital government is, and what can be done to modernize services—and recent years looked at why such changes are so necessary, then this year’s content is about how.

The pandemic, and challenges to open democracy and free speech, make it clear that we need to update public services, and have the means to do so. What everyone’s asking is how. How do we take the best from startups, while avoiding the worst? How do we retrain ourselves, and our leaders.

What can we learn—and what should we avoid—from startups?

We wanted to know what one thing governments could benefit from—and should avoid about—startups. This was a write-in question, so it’s hard to summarize the feedback accurately, but the main themes that kept coming up were that government should mimic experimentation, iteration, a focus on the minimum viable product, risk tolerance, and a belief that inaction is the biggest enemy of all.

By contrast, those attributes of startups that government should avoid were trying to be first to market, ethics, a willingness to break things, ignoring vulnerable or marginalized users, and a recognition that not everything needs to be digital.

There was also a minority—but significant nonetheless—that worried about importing political correctness and “wokeness” from the startup world, and expressed concerns about government overreach and reckless spending.

What skill would benefit you most?

We asked respondents to name one skill or process that, if they mastered it, would make them significantly better at their job. We consolidated the open-ended responses; here’s a word cloud of what we heard.

Note that responses were entered primarily in English, including two who wished for bilingualism.

Emerging trends in digital government

Thanks to Kent Aitken, we added a list of emerging trends in digital government to the survey to measure respondents’ familiarity with them. We scored each trend from “Never heard of it” (1) to “Literally my job” (5), and also calculated the variance (standard deviation) of the responses.

Some terms, such as digital standards, agile methods, and design thinking were familiar to many respondents; others, such as DevOps, accelerator programs, Top tasks approaches, and Rules as code, were unfamiliar.

The greatest variance in understanding of those trends included Pathfinder and Exemplar projects, design thinking, product management, design pattern libraries, Top Tasks, and accelerators.


Conclusions

Reading the qualitative data, and looking at the longitudinal trends from the survey, a few things are clear:

  • Respondents want to hack bureaucracy, and gain some of the urgency and focus of the startup world while avoiding many of its pitfalls. There’s an appetite for new skills, and a frustration that senior leaders don’t dream big or embrace the new realities of risk and scale that digital affords.
  • Government modernization as a profession is creating its own jargon and terminology, distinct from that of the private sector. It’s becoming a true profession, with different terms and expectations.
  • The pandemic has changed our priorities, both in terms of public policy, and the importance of particular technologies.
  • And finally, while we didn’t include the data in this survey, there’s a real appetite for in-person events. More than half of the respondents said they plan to participate in person at our annual November conference, with many more saying they intended to do so once they had departmental approval, and many overseas respondents planning to participate virtually.