During lockdowns across Europe and beyond, we all moved our lives online. We worked remotely and had meetings via Teams or Zoom. We also socialised and shopped online. For many people, this was familiar territory. For others, it opened up a whole new world—and highlighted significant problems with the ‘old world’.

The contrast was particularly stark in public services.

Why, people asked, can we bank online but not order a passport? We can shop online and have goods delivered within 24 hours, but we can’t order a new dustbin from the city council.

It is fair to say that most public services had not really embraced digitisation before the pandemic. There were pockets of excellence. However, most government IT projects were more known for their overruns and overspends than their convenience. The city of Madrid has taken this issue on board with its MAD4GOOD initiative. This digital transformation effort launched a Data Office in Madrid City dedicated to improving public policies with data and analytics.

Here are my top takeaways from working with the project.

  1. Incentives are important in driving projects

The pandemic has exposed gaps in public services. However, not every city government or even central government has leapt to fill the breach. What’s different in Madrid is the combination of issues and events. The economic crisis driven by the pandemic has resulted in EU recovery money being made available, with quite a large amount for Spain. The Spanish government has also identified digitisation as one of its top priorities for action. The stage was therefore suitably set for Madrid’s government to act.

  1. Problems can change very rapidly under conditions of global disruption

Cities have been grappling with a very similar set of problems for many years: overcrowding, air quality, cost of housing and so on. However, during the pandemic, the conversation changed abruptly. City centres emptied as many employees worked from home. It became clear that the existing model of city centre as busines hub might not be sustainable. Rural regions became much more desirable places to live, and city governments found themselves having to make cities popular again. You may think you have a grasp on your problem—but it can change overnight when there are global forces at play. You need to be able to change with it.

  1. You cannot tackle issues in isolation within a system like a city

Cities are large, complex systems. Each part of those systems affects other parts. For example, the policy on public transport and use of cars affects the quality of the air within the city. That, in turn, affects health and citizens’ desire to live in particular areas. It is, therefore, nearly impossible to tackle just one issue at a time. Instead, it is essential to find a way to grasp the inter-relatedness of the different problems. You have to balance different issues to maximise the overall benefit to citizens.

  1. It is important to focus on citizens’ quality of life

Cities exist for and because of their citizens. Without citizens—as cities realised during lockdowns in 2020—a city is nothing. This means that all services within the city need be designed to improve the quality of life of citizens. You do not collect rubbish because it looks unsightly. You don’t provide public transport because you like seeing buses or trams. You do these things because they improve the quality of life of those who live in the city.

  1. It is not impossible to combine efficiency and good experiences for citizens

Some cities have embraced the idea of smart technology as a way to cut the costs of city government. However, as an end in itself, this is a road to nowhere. It simply leads to disgruntled citizens, whose needs are not being met. However, with care, it is possible to use technology to both increase efficiency of city operations, and to improve the quality of life of citizens.

  1. Having more data doesn’t equal ‘smart’

Plenty of cities have embraced the smart mantra: the idea of using technologies to make city councils more efficient. However, in many cases, the reality has simply been mountains of data. To take advantage of the big and diverse types of data you have, you must develop a culture that embraces using technology. You need to be able to use analytics in conjunction with your data, to drive better decisions that improve the lives of citizens.

Our ever-changing world is becoming increasingly complex as citizens now live in a new paradigm where old rules no longer apply. Today, solving problems requires a more comprehensive and holistic approach to public service design and delivery that truly puts citizens at its core.

Whilst the task ahead poses a formidable challenge, it also provides governments and city decision-makers a unique and historic opportunity to modernize. Wish fresh funding now available to governments by means of Economic Recovery Funds, we now have a real window of opportunity that cannot be missed. The key to effectively modernizing Public Service in a way that improves the quality of citizens’ lives, requires above all the correct application of technology as a lever that delivers sustainable, tangible value in the process of transformation.

At the core of this transformation is the capability to extract operational intelligence from raw data for more insightful and holistic decision-making, putting the human element at the center of the process. It is not so much about making cities smarter but improving the process of making smarter decisions. It is all about modernizing by creating a sustainable decision-making operation that strikes the right balance between technology, process, and people within an otherwise traditional organization.

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About Author

Afshin Almassi

Director, Public Sector Sales

Afshin Almassi is a business strategy and analytics expert with over 20 years of experience helping government and healthcare clients transform public service with technology. Leading the Public Sector and Healthcare Industry team in SAS Spain since 2012, Afshin has held various consulting and technology management positions working Internationally at Arthur D. Little, Digital (DEC), Compaq and HP. He has an Economics and Government degree (BA) from the University of Manchester (UK) and an MBA from Bauer School of Business, University of Houston.

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