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Q&A on the Book Digital Transformation at Scale

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Key Takeaways

  •  Making governments fit for the internet era will require new public institutions and empowered teams that combine emerging digital skills with traditional government expertise.
  • Digital transformation is not an IT programme; it is about applying the culture, practices, processes & technologies of the Internet-era to respond to people's raised expectations.
  • Governments that have successfully applied digital transformation have saved substantial amounts of money while providing services that are simpler, clearer and faster for citizens to use.
  • Service standards and spending controls are powerful levers for driving change across large, fragmented organisations.
  • The strongest digital governments are those that have radically changed the way they work.

The book Digital Transformation at Scale by Andrew Greenway, Ben Terrett, Mike Bracken and Tom Loosemore, explores what governmental and other large organizations can do to make a digital transformation happen. It is based on the authors’ experience designing and helping to deliver the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS).

InfoQ interviewed Greenway about digital transformations in governmental organizations.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book?

Andrew Greenway: After we left the UK Government Digital Service (GDS) in 2015, we knew there were lots of stories to tell. We found ourselves telling most of the same tales again and again. Writing a book was our way of capturing the lessons that seem to apply pretty much universally to large, old organisations. It’s not the full GDS story by any stretch; there’s hundreds of those. 

And to be honest, I’d always wanted to write a book. 

InfoQ: For whom is it intended?

Greenway: Anyone who knows their organisation is out of kilter with the internet era, and is desperate to do something about it. There are so many people emerging from a big programme that has failed, or who are fed up with endless bleatings of ‘change’ from management without seeing any real evidence for it. The book is written for people who know something’s up and want to get things done, as opposed to just talking about them.

We originally thought it would be mostly useful for public servants and officials - government is the backdrop for most of the stories - but we’ve found that much of what’s in the book applies to pretty much any industry that began its life on paper.

InfoQ: How do you define “digital transformation”?

Greenway: An organisation going through the process of applying the culture, practices, processes & technologies of the Internet-era to respond to people's raised expectations. 

Digital transformation has become a tired phrase, which is a pity. Like any bit of language that enjoys some reflected success, it has been bastardised and marketed into semi-obsolescence. Plenty of deeply mediocre work will be going on in the name of ‘digital transformation’ right now.

We agonised a bit over putting it in the book title, but in the end decided it was better to try and claim the term for something positive, rather than invent some new jargon that would confuse people. 

InfoQ: What reasons do governmental organizations have to start a digital transformation?

Greenway: Often it comes from a recognition that the present state of affairs is unacceptable - either on the grounds of exorbitant cost, services that are clearly well below the standard people now expect, or a massive, visible programme failure with IT fingerprints on it. More positively, it can come from a leader (not always someone at the very top), who sees it as a lever to radically change their organisation for the better. 

The other thing is governments don’t haveto start a digital transformation. They rarely go out of business. You could argue the internet is not the existential threat to them it has been to the traditional media, hospitality and music industries, and is rapidly becoming for retail, banking and insurance. That said, voters notice bad public services. When an administration is seen as incompetent, it doesn’t tend to survive very long. That can focus minds.

InfoQ: What's needed to start a digital transformation?

Greenway: A strong political leader, a bold mission, a realistic but impactful first project, and an excellent, small, multidisciplinary team. 

That first team will ship the first digital services, and it will ship the culture of what is to follow. 

InfoQ: What things can be done in large organizations to establish agile teams consisting of people with the right skills?

Greenway: For many organisations, agile teams represent a very new way of working. It isn’t really possible to learn that in a classroom, or even be coached towards it. To really establish agile within an organisation, you need to bring in the full team, not just ones and twos (‘the unit of delivery is the team’ was a GDS mantra). That team should be given the conditions that allow them to deliver quickly, work in the open, and become a visible and tangible demonstration of what an agile team is. Some of that is intensely practical - having a decent workspace for them to all sit together, for example. Some of it is more challenging for institutions - moving to governance that is based on show and tells rather than steering boards is a big culture shock for many.

Without that team showing what it means for real, agile is just words on a page for people, and not very clear ones at that. 

InfoQ: What are the main challenges of digital transformations in governments? How can we deal with them?

Greenway: Inertia is a difficult thing to wrangle in governments; ‘the way things are done around here’ generates in-built momentum, and is hard to redirect. A lot of the hard yards come down to challenging that, and picking your battles wisely. You can’t fix all the things at once. Complexity is the cousin of inertia - trying new things looks even less appealing when working life is seriously busy and complicated already; and governments are always busy and complicated. 

Fighting inertia often comes down to being ruthlessly focused on delivering things that benefit the user, not the whims of the organisation. Tackling complexity is a case of being as enthusiastic about stopping things as you are about creating them. People never get enough credit for stopping things, but doing it well requires courage, innovation and creativity. Bringing simplicity where there was chaos is a good test of whether digital transformation is genuine or not.

InfoQ: How can you measure user satisfaction with digital services provided by governments?

Greenway: With a lot of care, and having your eyes wide open about how much to trust those numbers.

We included user satisfaction as one of the four performance indicators for all new and redesigned digital services. Very quickly we found out that no matter how you measure it, user satisfaction figures actually tell you very little about the actual quality of the service. 

Say you’re paying your tax online. No matter how first-rate the digital experience of that public service is, very few people will take real pleasure from it. That service might have a beautifully optimised user experience, but poor user satisfaction numbers. 

Over time, we focused much more on things like how many users successfully completed a transaction end-to-end, and reducing the time it took them. Public services are different to the private sector in this respect. The total number of users and the ‘stickiness’ of the service is often irrelevant as a performance measure; when it comes to public services, citizens want to do whatever’s necessary, and get on with their lives.

InfoQ: How does the GDS service standard look and what purpose does it serve?

Greenway: The standard was a list of criteria that we asked all new or redesigned digital service to meet before they could be launched to the public. These points were not just about the look and feel of the service; they also related to who was on the team, how they worked, what metrics they measured, how they ensure the service was secure, and so on.  

The criteria themselves have been iterated a few times (and the idea of a standard has been adopted in lots of other countries), but their intention is the same. Enforcing a standard is a practical way of changing working practices at scale. Enforcement is important. A lot of the time, we found ourselves saying ‘no’ to services from departments where colleagues had wanted to kill them off, but lacked the mandate to do so. Saying no, and being open, honest and consistent about why, is the way to change behaviour. It’s not a popular job, but it protects the people who are willing and able to work in the right way.

About the Book Authors

All four authors are partners in Public Digital, a consultancy that helps large international organisations, governments and senior leaders to deliver digital transformation at scale.

Andrew Greenway worked in five government departments, including the Government Digital Service, where he led the team that delivered the UK’s digital service standard. He also led a government review into applications of the Internet of Things, commissioned from Government's chief scientific advisor by the UK Prime Minister in 2014. 

Ben Terrett was director of design at the Government Digital Service, where he led the multidisciplinary design team for GOV.UK which won the Design of the Year award in 2013. Before working in government, Terrett was design director at Wieden + Kennedy, and co-founder of The Newspaper Club. He is a governor of the University of the Arts London, a member of the HS2 Design Panel, and an advisor to the London Design Festival. He was inducted into the Design Week Hall of Fame in 2017.

Mike Bracken was appointed executive director of digital for the UK government in 2011 and the chief data officer in 2014. He was responsible for overseeing and improving the government’s digital delivery of public services. After government, he sat on the board of the Co-operative Group as chief digital officer. Before joining the civil service, Bracken ran transformations in a variety of sectors in more than a dozen countries, including as digital development director at Guardian News & Media. He was named UK Chief Digital Officer of the year in 2014 and awarded a CBE.

Tom Loosemore wrote the UK’s Government Digital Strategy, and served as the GDS’s deputy director for five years. He led the early development of GOV.UK. Outside government, Loosemore has also worked as the director of digital strategy at the Co-Operative Group, as a senior digital advisor to OFCOM, and was responsible for the BBC’s Internet strategy between 2001 and 2007.

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