Top 10 Business Trends for Government to Watch in 2021

Updated:2021/3/25 11:35

By: Rick Howard, VP Analyst at Gartner

John Kost, Distinguished VP Analyst at Gartner

Bettina Tratz-Ryan, VP Analyst at Gartner

Milly Xiang, Sr Director Analyst at Gartner

As 2021 unfolds, government leaders will face ever-evolving challenges brought about by the pandemic and its aftermath. To meet these challenges and sustain the pace of digital innovation in the face of cost-cutting pressures, public-sector CIOs and IT leaders must link an expanding set of critical business priorities with continued investment in technology and information (I&T). Against this backdrop, Gartner evaluates the public administration trends driving government policy and practice through 2021.

The disruptions caused by the pandemic have reinforced a key digital government tenet: Public policy and technology are inseparable. This fusion of policy and technology moves the sole responsibility of digital leadership out of the office of the CIO and onto the agendas of the executive level governance expected from government officials. For this reason, digital leadership is the foundational business trend in government. Effective digital leadership is essential to realizing the opportunities and mitigating risks posed by each of the other business trends. Conversely, weak digital leadership can exacerbate tensions that prevent the government from fulfilling its role in maintaining a civil society.

Public-sector CIOs and IT leaders can leverage our government business trend research to develop and nurture their understanding of the connection between social policy objectives and technology investments. These trend analyses help CIOs make informed decisions to improve their business capabilities and support their organizations' goals in a post pandemic environment.

Figure 1: Top Business Trends in Government for 2021

1.Digital Leadership

“Digital leadership” is the duty of government executives to optimize, evolve and transform the organizations they lead by serving as champions to increase digital capabilities and competencies in the public sector. Digital government offers opportunities to optimize existing citizen services and transform how the value of government is measured and delivered. Government organizations need digital leadership at every level of the organization and across related government silos.

With the emergence of digital society, all government leaders, including those in elected or appointed positions, are tasked with maximizing the public value of technology investments and data assets. Government CIOs can encourage, coach, mentor and facilitate digital leadership, but digital government success requires non-IT government leaders to champion and sponsor the transformation of service delivery. All mission and business capabilities depend on I&T. Government strategy must address the pervasiveness of digital trends and expectations. Mission leaders must understand and sponsor strategies that digitally transform government across the enterprise and the ecosystem.

For government organizations to succeed in their digital business transformation, the senior executive team - including the CIO - must develop a holistic approach to deliver mission and citizen services.

CIOs must incorporate I&T impacts through all strategic planning and performance management at the agency level. The promise of digital government demands governments break down internal silos and become more citizen-centric. As organizations develop digital competencies, they need leaders who can inspire and coordinate a vision, a digital team that can collaborate and improvise, and a culture that breaks from the past. A harsh lesson learned during the pandemic is that what worked before the crisis hasn't worked during it. Traditional forms of strategic planning and execution must give way to adaptive governance techniques.

2.Ethics and Privacy

Ethics comprises the values and moral principles for the conduct of interactions among people, organizations and things. Ethics are not confined to policies or abstract reasoning. They are about human - and increasingly, machine and technology - behaviors expressed as principles, choices, decisions, actions and consequences.

Digital ethics discussions tend to be dominated by data and AI ethics. This is an important dimension. But government concerns with digital ethics need to reflect on the ethical impacts of any digital initiative. For example: Are new digital services opening up new divides, such as gender bias in image recognition systems? How far should robotics go in taking care of human services, such as in healthcare or elderly care? In a changing workplace, should we remotely monitor employee wellness, such as in law enforcement? What will be the impact of remote learning on long-term childhood development?

As society and technology issues become more diverse, government CIOs need to engage with a wide range of stakeholders about what constitutes ethical behavior. Only then can we expect the conversation to be nuanced and richer with inclusion. Frameworks for digital ethics by design support and help structure stakeholder engagement.

Even though privacy frameworks have matured, citizen experience in this area needs to improve, including when it comes to providing informed and trusted consent. Government also faces challenges adapting to the emergence of the “everything customer,” aka “everything citizen” - the one that values privacy protection at the same time as personalization and meaningful reuse of personal data.

The COVID-19 pandemic illustrated the importance of thinking less about grand solutions to ethical and privacy questions, but rather about the dilemmas they pose and how government CIOs can help address them.

3.Digital Equity

Digital equity is the ability of individuals and organizations to leverage digital means to advance the prosperity and enablement of all in society. This trend is about equitable access to, and use of, the digital technologies and information literacy needed for civic participation, employment, lifelong learning and essential services.

While response-and-recovery efforts relevant to the pandemic are a top priority, government organizations also must be prepared to respond to various disaster situations, such as hurricanes and widespread flooding. Readiness, response and recovery must be a “whole of community” program enabled by government organizations, in accordance with principles of equity and fairness.

A comprehensive, coordinated approach across all levels of government - national, state/provincial and local - is essential in addressing digital equity. In addition to direct government funding or corporate incentives, private and public partnerships and investments are required from information and communication technology (ICT) companies to expedite execution and sustainable funding mechanisms.

Digital equity is part of wider public policy debates. For example, net neutrality and the debate about national internet is not just about whether all internet traffic and activity should be treated equally or prioritized, or who should decide on those priorities. It is also about equity: Digital services targeting smaller communities, or developed by them, will often find they are unable to compete with mainstream interests if traffic and access are rationed by population only.

4.Constrained AI

Constrained AI in government is the process of creating policies, legislation and standards to control the adoption and use of AI by government organizations. The aim is to ensure the responsible use of AI, assigning decision rights about who can decide where and how it is used and establishing monitoring and enforcement processes to support the policies.

The most concerning implication of constrained AI for government organizations is that the early negative perception of poor government implementation of AI may lead to an overly defensive position being taken, stifling valid innovation. For example, global inconsistency around the laws that govern the capture, use and management of biometric data will limit governments' ability to build community trust for its appropriate use.

Poorly implemented AI-based profiling and decision automation that failed to keep subject matter experts appropriately involved in the process have already politicized the future use of these technologies in some regions. Further, the use of AI is associated with outcomes like destroying privacy, jobs, relationships and equality. This raises the need for greater oversight and governance to mitigate the risks and dilemmas posed by AI.

The result is that government executives and elected officials will be incredibly sensitive to the possibility of “intelligent” technology solutions inadvertently breaching community trust. This will force government CIOs to be more proactive and transparent with their approaches to mitigate these concerns, even at the earliest stages of experimentation.

5.Institutional Agility

Institutional agility is the ability and willingness of government leaders to sense and respond to change from both a policy and an operational service delivery perspective. It is supported by flexible technical architectures and applications.

To increase social resilience at large, institutional agility is required throughout the whole of government - within programs, departments or agencies. The scope, scale and frequency of change or disruption a government organization may experience varies considerably, according to the level of social governance it occupies. With community priorities focused on safety, health, education or economic development and opportunity, local governments must be responsive to the immediate needs of its citizens and businesses. When faced with national threats of the magnitude of a pandemic, war or financial collapse, typically slower-moving central governments have demonstrated they can react with a speed that is rarely sustained after the threat has passed.

Every government function, profession and executive must build policies, procedures and practices necessary to deliver institutional agility. Individual functions moving at different speeds will only manifest in new bottlenecks, limiting the extent of any benefits gained by those who have evolved.

Procurement must be capable of buying at pace. The finance department must plan for access to reserves or borrowing to meet funding needs and embrace consumption-based models. HR must have flexible working arrangements for staff to continue to operate in any circumstance.

Agility and responsiveness will be achieved through a confluence of technological innovation with flexible, adaptive ICT and organizational culture. It is imperative that governments establish a solid technological and organizational foundation that is agile enough to respond to and, in some cases, initiate change to meet rapidly evolving demands.

6.Procurement Flexibility

Procurement flexibility is the willingness and ability to adapt traditional acquisition policies or processes to cope with uncertain outcomes. It puts a premium on the outcome, rather than the rigidity of the process. It recognizes that, sometimes speed to results is more important than risk. It replaces the traditional approach of defining the intended results in the tender document with a focus on the qualifications of the vendor to provide innovation and successful outcomes when the outcome cannot or should not be precisely defined in advance. It recognizes that senior management will support acquisition staff as they execute an approach outside the processes normally followed.

For governments to embrace procurement flexibility, a number of mindset shifts will need to occur. Contracts awarded for masks and other personal protective equipment to suppliers with no history of delivering such products. Rolling out of new applications intended to help manage COVID-19, but that actually enabled data breaches. There is no such thing as an “IT project.” There are only business projects, and to be successful, they require business leaders to understand the implications of how the procurement process might affect the intended outcome. Political and business leadership (and IT) must recognize that it is not always possible or even wise to prescribe the intended outcome or development efforts in advance. Traditional turnkey approaches will not always be the best or even the least risky way to get results. Done well, agile development (or similar approaches) can actually reduce risk more so than rigid processes or contract specifications, even if minimum viable products occasionally don't actually work. Business and even political leaders need to assume the risk of achieving the outcomes, and neither fear nor hide behind the rigidity of traditional acquisition processes. Procurement will be seen as a subset of governance and, therefore, will engage the right leaders in driving processes consistent with the ability to achieve desired outcomes.

7.Citizen Experience Management

Citizen experience management (CEM) takes a holistic approach to designing a constituent's end-to-end experience when engaging with public services to maximize confidence and trust in government. Governments embracing CEM move beyond ad hoc initiatives that address customer service, user experience (UX) or experiences related to a single service to establish a comprehensive CEM program that demonstrates value through measurable outcomes. These programs include practices, such as customer journey mapping and human-centered design; technology initiatives, such as multivariate testing and voice-of-the-customer solutions; and data initiatives through customer experience (CX) analytics.

Governments should elevate CEM to an enterprise leadership initiative. This will require establishing strong executive sponsorship and include CEM in governance processes. Simply reporting on a citizen satisfaction score is inadequate, as governments must manage both how to create good experiences and how to handle bad ones.

When partnering to deliver public services, governments should establish clear expectations for citizen experience across the ecosystem.

As service channels continue to evolve, governments need to embrace a multiexperience platform to ensure consistency of service delivery across all channels. The “everything customer” is also an “everything citizen” that expects more than disparate channels to access public services. Often, they present conflicting priorities, such as wanting personalized services and government limits on their data collection to ensure privacy, for which the government must find the right balance.

8.Evolving Civil Service

The evolving civil service is the recognition that traditional government human capital management practices are inadequate. Turnover in the government workforce due to dynamic skill requirements, changing workforce culture, compensation differences compared with other sectors, aging workforce leading to retirements and the changing demands of the role with pacing the use of emerging technology will join forces to create an evolving civil service.

Senior leadership and critical institutional knowledge will depart government service at the same time their insights will be most useful in understanding the policies and procedures that must be preserved when moving additional services online. New civil service entrants will lack the insights of decades of experience in retaining the sanctity of public stewardship and the perspectives of a population that will likely utilize public services heavily in the coming years. At the same time, digital native perspectives will infuse fresh perspectives and momentum into creating digital citizen experiences when innovation will be critical to the sustainability of delivering them.

Digital workforce programs must be executed consistently to attract and retain new talent and ensure the best tools possible are available. Ensuring education and training are provided to increase digital dexterity across the enterprise will be crucial. Government organizations should quickly establish mentoring and job-sharing programs to cross-train and capture as much institutional knowledge as


Citizen experience teams should seek direct citizen input to assist in refining and scaling varying service delivery channels according to citizen preference and usage. This outreach will allow governments to scale down channels of dwindling interest, as some of the population are digital natives.

9.Distributed Government Workforce

The distributed government workforce trend reflects the need to make structural changes in human resource policies and management practices to support a workforce of remote and on-site workers on a permanent basis. Distributed workforce policies and practices are focused on promoting productive collaboration and communication, building trust, improving workplace safety and security, and increasing organizational resilience.

For as long as the COVID-19 vaccine uptake among citizens remains below the levels required to achieve herd immunity from the virus, any return-to-work planning must make the health and safety of its workers a top consideration. This imperative all but assures a slow and methodical approach to workspace configuration and the use of selective criteria to determine which job duties are best suited for remote or on-site locations. Reasonable accommodation must be made for employees who are unwilling to be vaccinated, but whose work can only be done from a designated office location.

The urgency with which government organizations moved people out the office in the early days of the pandemic also introduced new challenges or exacerbated existing risks. By necessity, the operating model of government was quickly extended to include capabilities needed to accommodate a hybrid workforce at scale.

What was broadly considered by executives in all industries impacted by the virus to be a short-term arrangement is now viewed as an opportunity to realize the well-documented benefits of telework. Gaps in managing organizational change and security vulnerabilities that may have been tolerable in the rush to remote must now be carefully assessed and resolved in the context of a longer-term digital workplace strategy.

The amount of remote work that can be efficiently conducted and effectively managed varies among government departments. Several factors influence how much and the type of work that can be distributed among remote and on-site settings. An organization's mission, workforce adaptability, available workplace technologies, or the extent to which citizen-facing and internal business services can be digitalized must be evaluated.

To sustain and grow a work environment that brings out the best in people, government management practices must foster a culture based on trust, transparency and accountability.

10.Digital Sovereignty

Digital sovereignty is the actions taken by a government to protect and control its nationally generated data and assert its rights to technological autonomy. The policy objective is to protect data and the privacy of citizens, businesses and government organizations against misuse, exploitation, cyberthreats and terrorism.

Legislative frameworks will not remain static and may be subject to substantial change as governments play catch up with technological advances. Vendors may need to accept that changes asked of, or forced on, them are unlikely to emanate from simple logic. Global players could find themselves facing myriad differing legislative requirements.

It is unlikely that any encrypted application back doors deliberately created will remain unexploited for criminal purposes. Asking developers to create calculated security weaknesses will lower privacy for all.

Trust between governments may continue to be eroded, and the technical commercial offerings from other countries could become increasingly mistrusted, leading to their inability to support efficient operations and consequently limit revenue growth aspirations.

Local suppliers protected from outside competition are unlikely to develop globally competitive offerings.

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