Digital transformation in Government. Great— I thought— I can write about this, it should be easy.
It was not so easy. I spent my holiday thinking about this and found myself constantly drawn to the things that need to change (understandably), so I have tried to step back and focus on the positive and the huge challenge that some of my colleagues are working hard on every day.
As a bit of background, I have been working on digital change since 2007 when I worked on the implementation of 2005 Hampton Review, Reducing administrative burdens: effective inspection and enforcement through to the Government Digital Services (GDS) Digital Exemplar programme; and now here in New Zealand.
There is a huge amount of willingness from some very talented people, but I generally only find these people at delivery level (makes sense, right?). These teams and individuals are really trying to change the way things work. We have a small service design team that works across organisational silos and pushes the sensible idea of multi-channel cross agency services.
At the moment, the positive work is done by a coalition of the willing. As an organisation (and a Government as a whole), we need to rethink how we provide all of our services and put user needs at the centre of everything we do (we do the hard work so that users don’t have to). If you received poor service from a company, then you probably wouldn't use them again. As public servants, we should not be allowed to take advantage of the fact that our users have no choice but to interact with us.
The savings can be huge. Take a look at look at how digital and technology transformation saved £1.7bn last year from UK’s GDS. At the current exchange rate, that is around $3.7 billion of taxpayers’ money.
Why is it taking so long?
Digital is still just seen as ‘the website’ or ‘product A’— all viewed in isolation.The concept of everything that a Ministry does being viewed as a single service by our users is not widely acknowledged or understood. We are not a digital organisation. We are still the kind of organisation that would write a digital strategy and not understand that we need an ongoing strategy to fit into a digital world. We remake our broken paper processes in digital form when we should just look at fixing the process.
We need to move to a position where we design our services using data. For that to happen we need to understand all the signals that are coming in and constantly improve our service. Phone call logs, email correspondence, direct product feedback, web analytics and user research, lots and lots of user research. These are the resources that will provide the direction for our continuous improvement. This is what our users are telling us and currently we either ignore them or view them in isolation.
We need to listen and respond by improving what we do. Responding to feedback from all channels is the start of a two-way conversation which builds mutual understanding and trust. This is the first hurdle. Once there is dialogue, we can start to think about digital transformation and being iterative in our approach.
Where to start
The scale of the required change ahead is vast. But if I could magically fix three things right now that would form a good foundation for digital transformation, then it would be these:
1) Leadership embracing failure—Failure needs to be backed from the top down. There will be a steep learning curve, mistakes will be made, but these mistakes must be embraced and learnt from (fail fast and iterate). This is where all the willingness from the bottom comes unstuck.
2) Stop ‘black box’ mentality—Most organisations have a ‘black box’ mentality. By this I mean, we will use a vendor for expertise without understanding what it is we have paid for or how it works. Using a third party to supply good people, experience and expertise is no bad thing, but you have to be an intelligent client, you must understand what you are asking for and know that you are getting good value for money.
3) Take a realistic approach to risk—Unrealistic views on risk hold us back. The project and management processes are all waterfall, mostly PRINCE2, with almost all applications deployed or managed (or both) by an outsourced vendor (see point 2). With our development technologies, design methods, deployment approaches and service support all structured to avoid risk. But, there is no risk management, no assessment of risk has been considered, so by default the most precautious option available has been applied. This tells me that risk avoidance is seen as more important than the quality of the service we provide to the users and customers of the Ministry.
This is where the Agile mindset can come more into play, as Agile methodologies are no longer seen as ‘bleeding edge’, becoming more mainstream as a delivery mechanisum, while managing risk and change in a much more pragmatic and risk weighted way.
Photo by Emre