The Digital – and the Transformation

1st January, 1970

The Digital – and the Transformation

For the past few years, so-called “Digital Transformation” has been hailed as the central enabler of change and modernisation in public services. In the UK public sector, or more accurately, in Whitehall, the Government Digital Service (GDS), a once upstart organisation now ‘maturing’, has led this digital transformation and become has synonymous with its movement.  

But let’s examine digital transformation progress more closely. While the concept of digital transformation as “something we do” has brought some successes, those successes have arguably been more “digital” than “transformational”.

There is a need to be clear about the difference between digital and transformation, and a need to distinguish between digitising analogue services – which involve turning ‘request a paper form’, ‘complete paper form written in complex specialist vocabulary’, post off to government, and get something back’ service – and an online process that can be done on your phone, while you wait for a bus, with little understanding of the underlying government policy.

If the public sector is to unlock the next wave of efficiencies and innovation it has to be fundamentally disruptive. It needs to, in the words of John Jackson, chief executive of the London Grid for Learning, who will be speaking at Government Computing 2017:

•             Smash the organisational silos that prevent sharing, collaboration and breakthrough insights;

•             Deliver economies of scale, knowledge and talent needed to accelerate new approaches;

•             Harness the power of common & interoperable platforms, delivered once and shared many times.

Jackson believes that not enough attention is being given to embedding digital into the DNA of public sector institutions so it is marbled into leadership, cultures, ways of working and the getting things done. How many organisations, for example, he asks, include digital skills as a must have for their top leadership team? How many policies really embed the potential of digital? How many organisations have a cadre of digital evangelists in every service they run? So whilst we’ve improved our approach to design, he says, we’ve not addressed embedding digital into the DNA of the public sector.

GlobalData Public Sector’s Gary Barnett, who will also be speaking at the conference and hosting a workshop, goes further. He argues, “If we are sincere about transforming public services, our digital leaders need to break out of the echo chamber that they have built for themselves and be ready to engage with the gnarly, complex, legacy-laden, reality that lies at the heart of the services that the public sector provides.

“Yes, user-centred design must continue to form a cornerstone of transformation – but this particular problem has multiple corners, and the extent of the transformation that we all have a duty to deliver cannot be delivered by only looking at the problem from the outside in, we also need to tackle it from the inside out.”

Barnett argues that the most frustrating thing about all the lessons that have been learned about agile delivery, collaboration, and the application of modern design and delivery techniques lies in our failure to apply them beyond the purely digital domain and target them at legacy modernisation.

One of the reasons, Barnett suggests, is that the digital cognoscenti hasn’t been too interested in grimy, dusty, complicated domains.  

He argues, “Let’s face it, the radical simplification of a crusty old legacy application doesn’t demo too well at conferences when compared to the before and after slides showing the ‘transformation’ of a clunky web 1.0 user interface into a beautiful, round cornered, pastel shaded ‘experience’.

“If the lessons we’ve learned from half a decade of “digital transformation” are to actually endure, it’s time to drop the ‘digital’ and focus on ‘transformation’.”


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