Opinion: What type of digital transformation is right for you?

All central government departments are at different stages in their digital transformation journey. Some are further along than others for good reason. But do they all need to digitally transform in the same way? Thom Beckett, Transformation Lead at Made Tech, explores the different types of digital change that can be applied to public services to make sure they’re user-centred.

Setting the tone for public sector digital transformation

When the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) published its policy paper ‘Transforming for a digital future’ last year, it set the tone for the government’s level of commitment to digital transformation for the next three years.

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Photo by NordWood Themes

The paper explains that there’s now thousands of digital, data and technology professionals working in highly effective teams across government. These people are delivering high volume digital services to a good standard, but services are often slow, difficult to use and expensive to deliver.

Transformation is crucial to reshaping an organisation to work more efficiently and focus on the right tasks, rather than creating barriers to significant delivery.

The different stages of the digital transformation journey

The costly issues of legacy IT and the skills gap are significant challenges, as is the siloed development in individual departments. This has led to varying levels of digital maturity across government. This brings me to a point in the policy paper where it asks, ‘what does it look like to transform a department from where it is right now?’ This is an excellent question because what we often fail to factor in when thinking about the progress made to digitalise our public sector services, is that central government departments are at different stages of their digital transformation journey. Some are further along than others and this is often not through lack of planning, resource or skill.

Organisations like the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) have excellent digital services. They have had to prioritise digital plans because they’re a public facing department that needed to deliver services in an agile way. Other departments with fewer direct public-facing services have had less pressure to transform immediately. These departments often have other areas that sit outside digital service delivery that need transformation.

Digital transformation done right

Not all our public sector services need to digitally transform in the same way or even at the same pace, but they do need to transform in a ‘good’ way.

The CDDO report tells us thatall departments will, as a minimum, meet the definition of “good” for product-centric organisational structures and agile ways of working when self-assessed against the new Digital, Data and Technology Functional Standard.’

Put simply, ‘good’ digital transformation is user-centric. Public sector departments have different requirements, so their version of ‘good’ may vary depending on their users. The user-centrism is the same, of course, but the audience is different. For example, the DWP and Her Majesty’s Passport Office provide public-facing services, whereas the Ministry of Defence needs to develop tools that the armed forces can use easily in complex environments. The user requirement should remain the central focus, but the individual requirements are very different.

Making life easier for civil servants

There’s also services that are not public facing but are used by employees. It might not be obvious how transforming these services can help the public. But if you can make life easier for civil servants, their time can be used more productively instead of fighting against legacy systems not designed with users in mind. It might be that these legacy services are time-consuming to learn, but they can also affect things like the quality or availability of data used to make important decisions.

A department that’s not set up to quickly organise multidisciplinary teams to tackle fast-moving problems can also miss opportunities to make life better for the public. These opportunity costs can be hard to measure because by their nature, we don’t know what could have been done. But departments further along in their transformation journey are often very aware of problems they would not even have tried to tackle prior to transformation.

Now that we know digital transformation can be approached depending on the public service and that ‘good’ digital transformation is user-centric – how can we use this to make sure we drive change forward?

Finding the value in change

In almost any central government team you’ll find that people understand there’s a need for change. But many are also happy as they are – we must challenge that.

When a whole team realises what could be better if you were to make a change, it will help make the journey ahead run smoothly. Change is hard, so you must be able to explain to people within your team and those outside it, why it’s valuable.

This is where the leadership team should know and understand their end goal so they can plan how to get there. By focusing on capabilities, skills and user needs, we can begin to re-shape an organisation. But all this needs a clear vision on why change is needed.

It’s a mistake to begin a transformation project without everyone being clear on why things need to be better. People need to understand that change can lead to solving problems more quickly and comprehensively, and it’ll likely create a working environment that’s more rewarding.

Working in a department that’s focused on user needs, delivering services for citizens, doctors and nurses or armed forces personnel is exciting and rewarding. Delivery happens more regularly and testing with users gives regular and invaluable feedback that can be used to improve services. Teams that have made the transition find that adopting agile, user-centred approaches make their jobs more satisfying while delivering more benefits for users.

Empower multidisciplinary teams

We should never underestimate the value of a multidisciplinary team – a team made up of people with a diverse mix of skills and expertise who can create and operate a service in a sustainable way. And we should be continuing to empower them when it comes to digital transformation.

If you don’t have this diverse range of skills within a department, dropping them in externally is easy to do. This will go on to help build an internal digital culture that’s sustainable and helps teams deliver better outcomes for service users in the most efficient and effective way.

When you bring in an external supplier, it’s vital to make sure you get the most value by transferring skills and knowledge through the entire contract. This means that by the end of it, you have your product or service, but you also have civil servants with a broader collection of skills more capable of delivering your next project.

Multidisciplinary teams in government are often used to deliver services for members of the public, but the same approaches and tools can also deliver services for internal users – whether they’re members of the health profession, armed forces or civil servants. There are some differences, however. You can train employees on tools, allowing for a degree of complexity that would not be appropriate for public-facing services. For example, a finance system should be intuitive and easy to use but will require skilled users and training to use correctly. Nevertheless, agile, user-centred delivery enables teams to create the right tool, for the right audience that is easy to understand and can be used reliably. Unfortunately, this cannot be said for all internal-facing services as things stand.

Committing to the right type of change

As the CDDO report says, people expect government services to be as good as their consumer and workplace online experiences. Rising to meet these expectations will need change on a scale that government has never undertaken before. The report represents a new era of collaboration on digital transformation and marks a step-change in the digital and data agenda.

Today, the advantages of transforming public services are mostly understood from those working within government departments and users. The level of collaboration between departments and suppliers is better than ever and we’re seeing a real commitment to build on this. Taking a user-centred approach to digital transformation significantly increases the likelihood of success and the value it brings.

Transformation is not just a buzzword. It’s how you can shape an organisation to the new challenges it faces, making it more effective and helping teams deliver services that improve lives. But it’s also true that working in an environment where the barriers to delivery are removed is also satisfying. People don’t join the public sector to fight against tools they’re provided with, they do it because they believe they can make a difference and digital transformation can make that an experience they have every day.

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