This opinion piece was written by Andrew Greenway, a partner in Public Digital. His book, Digital Transformation at Scale: why the strategy is delivery, co-authored with Mike Bracken, Tom Loosemore and Ben Terrett, was published on April 30th.
The problem with the phrase “digital transformation” is that we’ve heard it all before. Few governments wouldn’t claim to be putting citizens at the centre of everything they do. Still fewer would say they feel no need to stay on top of technology.
Why, then, does it often feel like business as usual to people working in government, and the users who rely on it? Why does positive change always seem to get stuck on the edges of an organisation? Where is this fantastic transformation we were promised?
To borrow a phrase from President Obama’s campaign technology chief, Michael Slaby, digital transformation is not complicated, but it is hard.
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Getting it right means thinking of digital as being a new way to run an organisation, as opposed to a new function. Applying the culture, processes, business models and technologies of the internet era to respond to people’s raised expectations is a job for the whole of government. Settling for layers of internet-era technology on telegraph-era institutions is choosing to go for the complicated option rather than the hard one. Time after time, it has proved a strategy where users or customers rarely see much benefit.
Cutting through the temptation to add more layers demands bold leaders who recognise a necessity for reform. Capitalising on a good crisis is a political skill. For good or ill, there’s rarely a shortage of crises to choose from. A £10 billion ($13.7bn) failed NHS IT program focused minds in the UK, the Healthcare.gov website failure did it for the Obama administration.
In both of those cases, new digital institutions — the Government Digital Service (GDS) in the UK, which I was lucky enough to work in, and the US Digital Service in Washington (USDS) — stepped into the breach.
Those teams shared a mindset and a mandate. They were instructed to think big while starting small and moving fast, building the momentum and credibility needed to tackle their government’s knottiest problems. They won arguments by delivering services that could be put in front of users, rather than papers that could be put in front of colleagues. And they sidestepped the hype cycle and the innovation trap: making sure their focus wasn’t drawn by the latest technology fad, and steering a course away from getting stuck on the political periphery.
By using data, design and delivery, agile multidisciplinary teams working in digital institutions all over the world are now producing things that make a more eloquent case for institutional reform than any business case can. Along the way, they are rewriting the rules that embed inertia; putting in place standards and controls that allow their organisations to repurpose resources away from costly contracts and failing programs.
Countries that have built institutions that combine digital delivery muscle with bureaucratic knowhow have reaped the benefits. In the UK, digital transformation cut billions off the government’s IT bills. In just three months, Peru built and launched a radically improved provisional driving licence service on their new single domain website, GOB.PE. In Ontario, digital leadership has been put on an equal footing with the most senior policy leaders.
But just as importantly, in all those countries and others, digital institutions have brought through a new generation of internet-era public servants into the heart of national governments. Movements like One Team Gov are evidence of a growing band of reformers with the energy and expertise needed to help their organisations pivot to a new way of working. Governments all over the world, from Argentina to Australia, Lebanon to Lithuania, are on the same journey.
This work is far from done. There is still a huge prize to claim by making governments fit for the internet-era. Yet despite their successes at the core of government, there are many people growing concerned that once-disruptive units like GDS and the USDS are diminishing in influence, as inertia, organisational politics and political indifference push bureaucracies back towards business as usual, and banish innovation back to the edges. Inertia has a nasty habit of creeping back to government, however ill-fitting the status quo might be.
In an age where trust in government is wounded and fragile, new institutions offer a chance to rebuild competence, confidence and credibility. Digital transformation to date has had some missteps. Nonetheless, there is no future in which organisations and governments won’t need some sustained resolve to reshape themselves in order to thrive. That will be hard. But it needn’t be complicated.
(Picture credit: Paul Clarke)