Public Services

Time to drop the digital and focus on the transformation

Published 04 April 2017

When will public sector digital leaders break out of their digital echo chamber, asks GlobalData's head of enterprise advisory Gary Barnett

By Gary Barnett

For the past few years, Digital Transformation has been hailed as the central enabler of change and modernisation in public services.

In the UK public sector, the movement has been largely led, noisily and confidently, by the Government Digital Service; but while there's no doubt that the idea of digital transformation as a "thing we do" has brought some notable successes, those successes have been far more "digital" than "transformational". And let's face it, there are many things we can say about public services in the UK, but "they have been transformed" isn't one of them.

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.

Perhaps 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 - Why can't we apply these techniques to legacy modernisation? Why can't we take the lessons we've learned and put them to work on the challenge of policy making?

We'll be discussing these issues at a keynote presentation at the Government Computing conference on April 27th.

One of the reasons has to be that the digital cognoscenti hasn't been all that interested in these grimy, dusty, complicated domains. This is, in part at least, because the radical simplification of a crusty old legacy application doesn't demo 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".

The key to this change lies in accepting that, contrary to recent dogma, user experience isn't "Everything". Of course it's important, after all user experience more or less defines the public's perception of the services we provide, but while we should all welcome the lesson that service transformation can only take place if you look at things from outside in, the pendulum has swung too far; in order to modernise our processes and systems we also need to look at them from the inside out

Applying the lessons we've learned about agility, and change management to the core of what we do is not going to be easy, but if we can get it right we stand a real chance of delivering genuinely effective and enduring change to the services we provide, and the way we provide them.

Instead of maintaining a separate and distinct Digital Priesthood, we should be finding ways to embed the lessons we've learned about transformation throughout everything we do. The lessons we've learned about applying agile techniques to achieving consensus must surely have a role to play in the way we plan, assess, and agree on policy.

The idea of Digital Transformation is approaching a crisis, because of a failure by the Digital Priesthood to embed its ideas within everything the public sector does; if digital transformation is to survive as a concept it has to become "something we all do" and not "something they do to us".

Gary Barnett is head of Enterprise Advisory at GlobalData Public Sector

Gary and his GlobalData colleague Jessica Figueras will discuss how to fix the crisis in public sector digital transformation in their keynote session at the Government Computing conference on April 27th. You can register for the conference here



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