October 19, 2022

Sabir x Paul Bellows


Paul Bellows is a digital transformation specialist that works with governments across Canada and the United States. He has been helping government agencies for over 2 decades. Not only has he witnessed the digital revolution first-hand, but he has participated in it.

During the latest This Week With Sabir episode, Bellows spoke about the work that he does with government agencies and highlighted the benefits of digital transformation, including:

  • More Efficient: Government agencies often work with stacks of paperwork and numerous face-to-face meetings, making for a very inefficient and hazard-prone setup. Digital transformation can simplify these processes and make them more efficient.
  • Cheaper: By eradicating mistakes, paperwork, and laborious manual processes, governments can save a small fortune and free up essential cash. The initial cost can be higher, but experts believe that governments around the world would free-up over $1 trillion if they all went digital.
  • Safer and Better: Digital systems allow governments to take more control and involve fewer external contractors.
  • No More Hassle: We usually deal with government agencies when we have to, such as following the death of a loved one or when applying for a driver’s license. These situations are already stressful, and being forced into long queues and tiresome paperwork just amplifies the issue. Digital processes can eradicate the nuisance of necessity and make everything simple and hassle-free.
  • Guards Against Future Issues: The COVID pandemic taught us that governments can’t always rely on their offices being open and paperwork being filed. Sometimes, things need to be digital, and so digital transformation can prepare government agencies for such eventualities.

Digital transformation is not a pipedream. It’s not just for science fiction novels. These systems are already in place, and in countries like Estonia, governments have made a complete switch to digital systems. In many ways, the US is lagging behind many European countries, and it’s about time that we caught up.

Watch my full interview with Paul Bellows on YouTube, or check out the embedded video and accompanying blog above.

Digital Transformation For Governments In 2022

Paul Bellows was a successful musician who dabbled in digital work. He spent his days recording, practicing, and gigging, and devoted some of his time to freelancing.

But then things picked up, he began making more money as a freelancer, devoted more time to a new business, and when his record company insisted that he devoted 100% of his time to his music career, he swapped the stage for a desk and a laptop.

He has been on an amazing journey, but the main reason I asked Paul onto the latest episode of This Week With Sabir was so I could pick his brain about digital transformation in relation to government systems.

Paul founded Yellow Pencil back in the mid-90s, and in the 26 years since then, he has been helping public agencies, universities, and regional governments to digitize their systems.

In a post-pandemic world, it’s “digital or die” for the public sector, and so Paul’s insights are vital.

Why Should Governments Go Digital?

Going digital opens new doors for regional and national governments. There are several reasons why governments should consider making the switch:

Going Digital Is More Efficient

Efficiency is the most obvious benefit of going digital.

When was the last time you walked out of a DMV or embassy and thought to yourself, “Well, that was a quick, pleasant, and painless process”?

It just doesn’t happen. Dealing with the government is something that we dread. At times, it feels like the process is designed to be as slow, difficult, and frustrating as possible.

There’s a lot of paperwork, a lot of chaos, and endless messages being bounced back and forth. This is true for most governments, but it’s especially true in the United States, where we have seemingly ignored digital systems in favor of endless red tape.

A few years ago, a friend of mine in the UK made some money on Amazon and the platform took 30%. After a couple of months, he filed the necessary paperwork with Amazon to stop them from taking money, and was told that he could reclaim the lost funds from the IRS.

The UK has a much more efficient tax system than we do. Your tax returns are compiled and sent by an employer and you’re sent a text/letter to display the total. If you disagree, you can dispute and go through the usual filing process. If not, you pay and move on. As a result, he was hopeful that the process would be just as easy.

In the end, he got so confused with the process that he hired a freelancer to do it for him. After spending weeks compiling the documents and sending them off, he waited a further 6 weeks for a reply, only to be told that it was all null and void as the freelancer had spelled his name wrong on one of the forms.

He tried to call them to clarify what was required and was essentially told to figure it out himself.

In the end, he gave up, stating that the money just wasn’t worth the hassle.

That process doesn’t need to exist. We have been led to believe that tax should be long and confusing and the DMV is supposed to be hell on earth. But with complete digitization, dealing with the government can be efficient, painless, and not something that you dread.

Going Digital Guards Against Unforeseen Disasters

The importance of digitization became more apparent during the early months of the pandemic, and this is when many regional governments finally took the leap into the digital world.

Much of the infrastructure was already in place, but it wasn’t always being used. Governments were dealing with too many people face to face and knew that they couldn’t expect older people and poor families to go digital when they might not have phones or computers.

The idea was that everything would steadily become digital, and in 20 or 30 years, when the Boomer generation passed and the oldest generation was tech-savvy, the switch could be made.

But COVID forced their hand. It was a case of “it either doesn’t get done, or we do it digitally”.

Humans have thrived for so long not because we’re great at learning gradually and acclimatizing steadily. It’s because we’re adaptable. The biggest changes in human history haven’t occurred as a result of steady and useful changes, we got there out of necessity.

War, disease, famine, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions—all of these things have forced us to rethink how we hunt, grow, build, and evolve, and they have turned us into the thriving species that we are today. But those disasters still serve as catalysts for growth, and that was the case with the pandemic.

It was by no means a positive, but it has led to some advancements in vaccine technology, pandemic response systems, and digital systems.

Going Digital Allows Governments To Learn More About Their Citizens

Digitizing systems gives governments more information about their citizens and allows them to keep track.

When we think of the government tracking citizens, our minds jump straight to scenarios seen in Orwell’s masterpiece, 1984. But that’s the extreme.

In fact, governments already use some systems to track and alert citizens. We have a national warning system in the form of the Emergency Alert System and we also have the AMBER Alert system active in all 50 states.

Criminal records, sex offender registries, and countless other documents have already been digitized and they all make it easier to track criminals and provide necessary warnings regarding their location.

There are also existing systems that can scan an individual’s face or license plate as they pass a CCTV camera, check it against a most-wanted list, and then flag an alert when a match is found. This definitely takes us into 1984 territory, but it gives you an idea of how digital systems can be employed.

Going Digital Takes Some Of The Stress Out Of High-Stress Scenarios

Typically, you only go to the government when you’re going through stressful periods. You deal with the government when a parent needs end-of-life care, a family member has recently died, or you need a driver’s license. If that process is stressful, you’re just compounding your misery.

Even with births, name changes, and other things wrapped in red tape, if the process is stressful, it makes things much worse.

Digitization helps to break down the barriers and make these processes simple and painless. It’s not going to make a loved one’s death easy, but it doesn’t build more barriers and that’s what’s important.

Which Country Is The Leader In Digital Transformation Technology?

Quick question: Which country is the leader in digital transformation technology?

The USA probably comes to mind, but we’re really only just catching up. The United Kingdom has digitized a lot of its systems, including those relating to its National Health Service (NHS) and HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), which deals with tax.

Japan and South Korea probably spring to mind as well, but these are actually trumped by Denmark and Estonia, the latter of which was highlighted by Paul during our discussion.

The unique thing about Estonia’s digitization is that it was born out of necessity, as well as efficiency.

Estonia is bordered by Russia and until 1991, it was part of the Soviet Union.

As you might expect, anxiety is pretty high in Estonia right now. Estonia is part of NATO, so it’s protected, but we’re living in unprecedented times and it’s hard to know what the future will bring.

Imagine that you own land, homes, and businesses in Estonia. The Russians invade, conquer, and then settle their own people.

Overnight, you lose all of that land and all of those assets. You can complain, but if you’re an Estonian in Russian territory, no one will care.

If the territory is returned years later, the onus is on you to prove that you owned those assets, and as the paperwork was likely destroyed, that won’t be easy.

By digitizing its entire system, Estonia can back everything up to an embassy in London as soon as an invasion begins. That way, when the territory is returned, the systems will be restored and everything can resume as before.

It’s not just about providing backups, either.

The Prime Minister of Estonia uses an iPad to enact new legislation, thus cutting back on endless paperwork and expediting the process by which laws are enacted

In 2005, just a year after joining NATO, Estonia became the first country to adopt online voting.

Online voting might not seem as revolutionary now, but this was two years before the launch of the first iPhone and a year before Facebook opened to the general public.

The Estonian system is broadly known as E-Estonia and it involves the use of digital signatures, online taxes, and countless other innovations.

Everything runs quickly and efficiently, and as these systems have been in place for many years, Estonians are used to them. It also means that in the next few years, there will be working/voting adult Estonians who have lived their entire lives in this digital environment.

How Much Does Digitization Cost For Governments?

Money is everything for regional governments. They operate on very limited budgets, and if something is too expensive or stretches the budget too thin, it’s out of the question.

Even if that thing can save millions in the future, if it costs too much in the present, it’s not even on the table.

So, what are the costs involved with this process?

It’s hard to put an exact cost on digital transformation, but it has been estimated that it could save up to $1 trillion annually if all the governments of the world were to adopt these systems.

Digital transformation removes a lot of the costly errors that plague bureaucracy. It also reduces the need for paperwork, travel, in-person meetings, and more. Of course, it will reduce the workforce slightly, but by freeing up so much additional cash, those jobs could be made elsewhere.

What Does The Future Of Digital Look Like For Governments?

Digital transformation will obviously make a big difference in how governments are run. It will save them time and money and negate the need for countless manual processes that are time-consuming and prone to mistakes.

But the goal is not just to support regional governments and make life easier for public sector workers. The thing that makes digital transformation so exciting is that it has an impact on how each of us lives our lives.

You can vote online by logging into an official account and selecting your preferred option. If you need any official documents, you can request them in a few clicks and then receive them by email. Need to file your taxes? Everything will be processed by digital systems, sent to you for confirmation, and if the amount seems right, you just need to confirm.

The way you confirm your taxes, vote, and request documents is via a digital signature. The signature is already programmed into your phone or device, so just use the fingerprint sensor on your device for the security unlock feature, and your signature will be added.

No more rifling through papers. No more scrambling for a pen. And definitely no more waiting 3 to 5 days for snail mail to land in your mailbox, only for you to make a few scribbles and then send it back again.

It’s an easier, simpler, and stress-free future, and the most exciting part is that we already have the technology in place.

The Million Dollar Question: The Biggest Challenge For Government Digital Transformation

As always, I ended my discussion with Paul Bellows by asking for his most valuable piece of advice. Usually, I refer to it as the “$100,000 question”, as it can deliver 6-figures of value. But we’re dealing with governments here, so this advice could be worth millions.

Bellows talked about the need to make the switch, embrace the change, and prepare for what’s to come.

In the next few years, governments in the US will face a retirement crisis as millions of Baby Boomers leave the workforce. It will force them to adapt, much like the chaos of COVID, and we could see some huge changes taking place.

Governments of old worked with a series of contractors over which they had very little control. But with digital transformation, governments are given more control. Effectively, they are operating like large-scale software companies, and they need to keep going in that direction if they want to be prepared for these changes.

The good news is that digital systems can deal with these changes and ensure that government systems run more efficiently than ever before.

More Information

If you want to learn more about digital transformation and how it can benefit you, check out the full This Week With Sabir podcast. In addition to providing insights into how digital tech can change how governments operate, Bellows also talked about his personal journey and offered some helpful tips on entrepreneurship.

For more advice on entrepreneurship, check out some of the other TWWS episodes, including this talk with Michael Lastoria and this chat with Nick Stone.

About Paul Bellows

Before starting Yellow Pencil, Paul was an award-winning folk-rock singer and songwriter. One of the first musicians to use the Internet for music promotion and sales, he has released four albums that have hit college top-10 lists across North America. Paul was an early adopter of digital streaming and e-commerce, working with UK-based Real World Records to distribute their catalog of music and interactive art throughout Canada and the US.

Originally a sideline for his professional music career, the digital agency role quickly became his primary career. Based on a passion for web content accessibility, Paul moved into work with local government organizations to assure universal access. Now Paul works as part of a talented team of designers and technologists who support clients including Toronto and Edmonton, the Government of Alberta, the Wharton School and many other government agencies and universities across North America.

Paul thinks deeply about the organizational, citizen experience design, and technology aspects of digital government, focusing on transformation and systems thinking.

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