Government. It’s a word many of us associate with clunky bureaucracy and intransigence to change. How could digital transformation ever hope to proceed with so much red tape? While overarching digital transformation at a federal level takes significant planning, plenty of agencies in the public sector are keeping pace with digital demands by utilizing low-code/no-code tools. “Certain functions in government, regardless of size, have the culture to be innovative and change business processes,” says Mark Smitham, public sectors solutions lead at Mendix.
We’ve previously covered how low-code/no-code can aid knowledge workers in all sorts of digitally nascent industries, such as healthcare, construction, manufacturing, and brick-and-mortar retail. The public sector is yet another area in need of more accessible software development to upkeep the well-being of communities. Here, responsive digital services are particularly vital to ensuring inclusivity and maintaining social distancing throughout pandemic spikes.
I recently talked with Mark Smitham to understand how low-code/no-code can assist government efforts. According to Smitham, modernizing digital services in the public sector is essential to meet societal needs. The technology could enable those on the front lines to enact legacy modernization, share city planning, and construct citizen-facing applications, among other innovative ideas. Below, we’ll look into these areas to explore how low-code/no-code can affect positive change in the public sector.
The State of Public Sector Digital Transformation
First, for those unfamiliar, what exactly do we mean by “public sector?” The public sector, as described by Smitham, is any organization in government, whether it’s at the federal, state, county, or local level. There are also intergovernmental agencies, such as NATO, the EU, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the UN. These agencies are considered in the public sector, as are policing, infrastructure works, utilities, public transport groups, and certain universities. As you can see, the public sector is a broad umbrella that encompasses many social services.
Low-code/no-code development has been around for some time. It’s the idea that by using pre-built components, users can string together applications and workflows with fewer lines of code — or using no code at all. Low-code/no-code enables software development and deployment through graphical user interfaces, thus enabling less-technical users to generate all sorts of custom creations. With that in mind, let’s look at a few ways the public sector could benefit from low-code/no-code.
Four Ways Public Sector Could Utilize Low-code/No-code
Develop citizen-facing services. Providing digital alternatives for services typically conducted over the counter is a boon for accessibility and inclusivity, says Smitham. This could replace paper forms, like physical applications for permits. Digital options for local government services aid the disabled, elderly, or those with language barriers. Remote alternatives also retain safety during COVID-19 outbreaks.
Modernize legacy IT. The public sector is often using obsolete IT that’s difficult to maintain, says Smitham. Low-code can be used to improve infrastructure by opening up data from legacy systems in a more accessible way, making it portable to newer apps. Low-code platforms also excel in generating boilerplate code necessary to support mobile devices. A responsive, mobile-friendly interface is also critical to engaging with citizens, especially as smartphone ownership has surpassed that of desktops and laptops.
Create innovative services. Low-code/no-code takes software development, a power typically reserved for the programming class, and puts it in the hands of subject matter experts, enabling front-line workers to solve their own problems. This ability can lead to some completely “out-of-the-box” applications that are deployed in innovative ways, says Smitham.
Optimize planning processes. Low-code/no-code has pragmatic benefits, too. For example, it could be used to generate a public forum to consult members of the public on planning issues, says Smitham. Using something like MindSphere, you could embed a digital model of your plans into a Mendix app to share digital twin virtual models of proposed urban planning projects, he says. It’s not too much of a leap to imagine urban plans one day being showcased as a metaversial experience.
The Benefits and Drawbacks of Low-code/No-code
There are many case studies on low-code being used throughout the public sector. For example, the Flemish Government utilized a low-code app to break through a linguistic barrier when disseminating coronavirus information. It later expanded it to include welfare services, too, making it available in Ukrainian and Russian to support refugees from the ongoing war. The Netherlands has also been a big advocate of low-code — the city of Rotterdam recently developed a low-code digital service desk to digitize the birth registration process. Similarly, Smitham describes how San Antonio has used low-code to digitize paper-based processes.
According to Smitham, these scenarios benefit from newfound agility. Using low-code, the speed of software development can be significantly decreased, shrinking month-long timelines down to weeks. Low-code could also reduce the total cost of ownership, as it requires fewer development resources to maintain — a necessary precaution amid an ongoing IT skills gap. But of all these benefits, increased accessibility ranks the highest, says Smitham. “Commercial off-the-shelf products are not inherently designed with inclusion or best practices in mind.”
Of course, there are drawbacks to leveraging any new technology — especially one that puts so much power into the hands of “citizen” developers (not to be confused with the meaning of “citizens” in the context of government). Security around low-code is a legitimate concern and will require proper governance and fine-grained, role-based access control to tighten. To avoid shadow IT, it’s best to use one low-code platform to sustain visibility, says Smitham. Inevitably, low-code/no-code will not be a fit in certain agencies with stringent security requirements.
Secure online voting may still be far away from what low-code/no-code platforms can currently offer. But, for many areas of the public sector, low-code/no-code technologies could help improve how government agencies run and interact with citizens, thus enabling the public sector to spur innovation and progress.
When scouting for a low-code platform, Smitham recommends users in the public sector first check that offboarding is in place to avoid any vendor lock-in scenarios. On that note, data sharing capabilities should be in place as well to safely expose data from a development platform and share it between applications. Security certifications are essential to avoid flaws, as is backward compatibility to ensure stability for the long term.
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