Guide to building a digital institution says the quick and agile philosophy of the Whitehall digital team is still relevant
The concept of government as an Amazon-style ‘platform’ is still remote, four leading figures in the creation of the Government Digital Service (GDS) say in a new book.
The main obstacle, claim Andrew Greenway, Ben Terrett, Mike Bracken and Tom Loosemore in Digital Transformation at Scale* is the departmental structure of accountability, and a resulting lack of trust.
“Until senior officials can trust each other enough to rely on one another’s work, government as a platform cannot and will not happen,” they conclude.
While some central platforms, notably GOV.UK, have worked very well, the authors say, others have an uncertain future. These include “platforms for payments, notifications and identity management, among others”.
Critics of the GDS may seize on this admission that the team, set up by the Coalition Government, is and was more effective at setting up standalone web services rather than achieving fundamental transformation.
Tacitly, the authors agree. They are unapologetic about the GDS’s original philosophy for digital government: start small with a project for which success is immediately apparent, get a working system out there, and keep improving it based on users’ feedback.
As directors of consultancy Public Digital they have an obvious motive for talking up their successes. They stress that Digital Transformation at Scale is not a history of the GDS but rather a guide for transforming big businesses and other governments into digital institutions.
However, they acknowledge that even the much hailed GDS did not get everything right. One revealing regret is not doing more for the wellbeing of staff: “The steady drip of stress takes a toll. Take time to recuperate, replenish and go again.”
The authors also reveal frustrations in dealing with HM Treasury: digital teams are advised to focus on making sure that “the people making investment decisions in your finance ministry or elsewhere are properly qualified to opine about technology”.
Another telling theme is the difficulty of recruiting the right people through the conventional channels. “The way most organisations recruit digital and technology leaders is mad.” There are also hints at frustrating running battles with old school chief information officers.
Looking to the future, the authors warn digital transformers to be wary of the current hype surrounding technologies such as blockchain and artificial intelligence, noting that these have “especially gripped executives in organisations that have largely failed to react to the open internet’s impact. In our experience, the more senior the figure, the more interested they are in technologies at the bleeding edge of discovery.”
In a key piece of advice, the authors say: “Your digital strategy should be concise. It should also be pleasurable to read.” Against the odds, Digital Transformation at Scalemanages both.
*Digital transformation at scale: why the strategy is delivery, Andrew Greenway, BenTerrett, Mike Bracken and Tom Loosemore
London Publishing Partnership 210pp, £14.99
Image by Clay Gilliland, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons