• Opinion
  • August 20, 2018
  • 9 minutes
  • 2

Digital ninjas: how we’re sneaking a tech revolution into our department

Opinion: The UK's Department for International Development now has 250+ digital ninjas

This opinion piece was written by Joseph Pakenham, a digital advisor at the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID). It also appears in our digital government newsfeed.


The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) operates an “elite” group of 250-plus digital ninjas who are our conduits and advocates for everything digital within the organisation. Yet it wasn’t always so popular.

This is the story of how ninjas slowly infiltrated through an entire government organisation and how they are helping to change and improve it every single day.

Development in a digital world

I launched our ninja network at DFID in late 2015. Back then, it was clear that digital was becoming essential to increase the department’s capabilities.

Why? Better digital skills are a UK civil service-wide priority: being able to use modern digital tools and getting the benefits of collaborative working allows public servants to be more effective in their work.

“The whole world is being disrupted by digital technologies, and developing countries are in no means exempt”

Within development, better use of digital tools to improve program management across multiple sites and locations — and use of collaborative digital tools such as Skype, Google Drive and Trello — can help deliver better outcomes through more connectivity.

To run effective programs and make sure nobody is left behind, leaders in international development, like DFID, also need to be taking a proactive look at the benefits and disbenefits of digital technologies around the world. The whole world is being disrupted by digital technologies, and developing countries are in no means exempt, and often at the forefront of change.

What it means to do development well in a digital world has been set out in DFID’s 2018-2020 Digital Strategy. If we don’t prioritise inclusive digital access in development, then the technology revolution can make entrenched inequality worse. Today almost 50% of people around the world are connected to the internet. But those who are already marginalised — including women and girls, people with disabilities, people living in rural areas — are less likely to benefit.

But, done correctly, technology has the ability to bridge these divides. Just a few years ago, Myanmar (Burma) had rates of mobile and internet penetration even lower than North Korea. Then the telecommunications market was liberalized, and within three years it had more SIM cards than people and 80% of phones were smartphones.

The birth of the digital ninja

For all these reasons, with my colleague, Frances Sibbet, I wanted to find a way to accelerate DFID’s digital transformation.

Instead of the usual top-down approach — which we simply didn’t have resources for — we decided that bottom-up advocacy would be more effective and would reflect the ways digital technologies are changing work.

So we created a set of new, voluntary roles within the department: the digital ninjas that now number more than 250.

“They deliver digital updates to their teams and cascade digital skills sessions”

Prospective ninjas sign up via a brief Google Form (obviously) and have several main duties. They are their team’s go-to person for help with digital tools. They agree to be enthusiastic and willing to try new digital stuff. They deliver digital updates to their teams and cascade digital skills sessions. They share tips and support fellow ninjas on our active ninja Yammer network. And finally, they commit to keeping their digital skills up to date and helping colleagues master new digital skills.

There’s usually at least one person in each team who is the go-to for digital already, and being a ninja means explicit recognition for that work.

We’ve had ninjas reverse mentor our senior leaders so they can use our new technology more effectively, run training sessions for colleagues on new digital tools such as Trello and Yammer and even present at international conferences on the importance of digital for development.

DFID’s improved digital capabilities are already making a stark difference to its programming — as you can see from the other Innovate DFID posts — accelerated and supported by the ninjas.

“We’ve had ninjas reverse mentor our senior leaders so they can use our new technology more effectively”

To give an example, one of the most straightforward applications of technology within a development context is the digitisation of the monitoring and evaluation process. It’s critical that we make sure UK taxpayer money is being spent correctly, so we invest a lot of time and money into this process.

Confirming the construction of a school, or the vaccination of children would traditionally be carried out by someone with a pencil and paper. We had to wait a long time for results to be returned, and we couldn’t be sure of their accuracy (proof of location and entry time wasn’t possible). Solutions like Google’s Open Data Kit mean we can now get information faster, more accurately and at lower cost to analyze.

Shiny badges

Whilst not all ninjas are as active or engaged as each other (we have different badges and levels to signal and reward differences), they all support colleagues through a wide range of tasks and receive many benefits in return for this voluntary commitment.

Ninjas get regular training opportunities to learn new digital tools and techniques. They can access a network of peers to support them — on Yammer and in real life. They receive structured feedback for our performance management process, and rewards for helping out their colleagues through a system of bronze, silver and gold badges. Finally, they get a monthly newsletter of tips, tricks and links in our Ninja News.

“Our next target is to get a ninja in each of DFID’s 80+ teams and offices across the globe”

Rewarding our ninjas with support not readily available to the rest of DFID, and awarding them shiny badges, has been essential to the network’s success. Feedback from our digital ninjas has been almost entirely positive, and we’ve not had one leave yet. This doesn’t mean we’ve rested on our laurels though, and we carry on trying to improve the way the network works.

Our next target is to get a ninja in each of DFID’s 80+ teams and offices across the globe, something which we are so close to achieving we can almost touch it.

If you are interested in setting up your own network of digital ninjas in your organisation, get in touch and I’ll try to help you out. — Joseph Pakenham

(Picture credit; Pixabay)

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