Even if we adopt Tom Loosemore’s definition of digital – and we should – it’s still necessary to interpret it in the context of the service you are looking to digitise.
I’ve worked out a really simple framework for thinking about this, by dividing the options into three distinct levels, or approaches to, digital change. None is necessarily right or wrong, but it’s always likely that one is more appropriate to achieving the outcome you desire for a particular service, in a particular context. Moreover, they shouldn’t be seen as fixed – instead, you can evolve a service through the levels as context changes. The levels are digital access, digital redesign and digital transformation.
Digital access simply means taking a process that currently doesn’t work on the internet, and making sure that it does. Much of the digital work before around 2012 was of this nature, often called things like ‘e-government’ or, later, ‘channel shift’. A lot of the early efforts were based on putting electronic versions of forms on a website, often as a PDF, which would have to be printed out, filled in with a pen and then returned, either by scanning and emailing or, most likely, sticking it in the post.
That sort of thing isn’t really good enough these days, and so the more modern approach is to have online web-based forms that the user can complete there and then. It’s quick and simple and does one of the most important things – it makes things convenient for the user, at least at the start of the process.
The downside is that these forms when used just for digital access tend to email details to the back office, where a human has to read them, process them, enter details into the line of business system and so on. Also, the user won’t be aware of the progress of their transaction unless they phone up and ask. More troubling is that if services never evolve beyond digital access, it masks a lack of progress and ambition.
Convenient for users (especially if they are used to paper)
User will be frustrated with what is still a fundamentally manual service
No efficiency gains for the organisation
Can be a mask for a lack of progress (we’ve digitised all of our services! errrr…)
Digital redesign cranks things up a notch, and I suspect it is the area where most attention is being paid at the moment. It goes beyond digital access by creating real changes to services when they are digitised. These come in two main flavours:
redesigning processes and user experiences
making the technology work smarter, through integrations and introducing new capabilities
Digital redesign takes longer than access, but the rewards are greater in terms of better meeting people’s expectations and potential for savings and other efficiencies. The outcomes are also less certain, which means risk levels are a little higher – so taking an agile approach is definitely a good idea.
To make this work, you’re also going to need to do things like user research and employ some service design thinking – considering the whole service from end to end from the user’s perspective to ensure it meets their needs, as well as those for the organisation.
Greater returns from your effort
It’s actually properly changing something, rather than just sticking forms on the web
It’s not so ambitious that people won’t understand what you’re trying to achieve
Needs more people, more skills, potentially new technology, which means more money
Can take a while, so unless you manage the work in an agile way, it might take time before seeing results
Integrating into back office systems can take years off your life
So what, then, is digital transformation? Well, when a service is truly transformed for the internet era, it takes a completely blank piece of paper approach to its design. You take as first principles that the majority of your users have access to the internet, wherever they may be, and design around that.
This is the bit of Tom’s definition of digital that refers to business, or operating, models. One of the best ways to describe this idea is to think about some of the new, digital age companies that have come to have such an impact on our lives:
AirBnB is a global hotel company that owns no hotels
Uber is a global taxi firm that owns no cars
Amazon is a global retail empire that has no (or very few!) actual shops
These companies base their operating model design on the fact that the majority of people have access to the internet the majority of the time. It’s what makes hailing a cab via a smartphone app viable.
True digital transformation does the same thing, but with existing services. Note that this is much harder than it sounds – coming up with workable, transformative operating models isn’t an easy thing to do in the first place, but even less so when a service is live and working already, in a mature organisational setting.
Another issue is that some of the rather trite ways that this is presented – “What is the Uber of social care?” – can be rather off putting – over-simplifying what is an incredibly complex web of interlocking services, providers and funding mechanisms. Nonetheless, sometimes a rather blunt way of expressing a problem space like this (“the AirBnB of emergency accomodation!”) does help people start to think a bit deeper about how they might redesign a service from the ground up in the digital era.
The final consideration I would raise here is that many of the business models of these modern internet companies is also based on their access to many billions of dollars of venture capital funding, which is used to fund fast growth, soak up early losses, and establish brand recognition and market dominance. Public services have no access to such funding, although they do often have a natural monopoly – which while is not the same thing, it could perhaps be leveraged to make an operating model redesign more likely to succeed.
To sum up, true digital transformation is extremely rare, but is the pinnacle of what can be achieved when completely redesigning a service for the internet age. As local public services become increasingly cash-strapped, it’s something that more organisations must start seriously thinking about.
Genuinely transformative, creating services built for the digital age that meet users’ expectations
The kind of change that is needed to protect local public services in the future
You’re likely to attract great people to work on such a project
A lot of work. You’ll have to go back to first principles and design out from there, which will take time and effort
Risky, there are a lot of opportunities to make missteps, so taking an agile approach will be key to minimising the impact
This requires organisation-wide buy in and support, so building a coalition to commit to this will be a massive job
Hopefully that helps. The important thing to remember is that there are different ways of approaching digitisation, each with its own balance of risk and reward. Which you choose will depend on a number of factors, including the digital maturity of the whole organisation and the service itself, the people and tech you have access to, the amount of time you have, and the outcomes you need to achieve.
Also, bear in mind that you don’t have to take just one approach. It’s perfectly plausible to start with applying digital access to a service, then evolving it into a digitally redesigned service, all the while plotting a complete transformation further down the line.
Some quick notes on how to use this – although remember, you are free to do what you like with it!
Replace <Name of service> with… oh, you know surely
You can delete the link to this post to protect your reputation if you like
Add a quick summary of what the purpose of service is – both in terms of the user need and what the organisation needs to achieve
Consider the components of the service (whether tech or process based). Leave ticks for those that are needed and crosses for those which aren’t
How is the service currently delivered? Again, leave ticks and crosses in the right places
Think about the users of the service. Are they
People running their own businesses?
Professionals working alongside the organisation, perhaps solicitors, architects, or folk from other public services?
Politicians, whether at a local or national level
As well as doing the tick and cross thing, add the number of people who use the service every month, to get an idea of the size of this thing
Finally do some quick analysis on three criteria:
What would the level of benefit be to the end user if we transformed this service? Green for lots, red for little, amber for somewhere in the middle
What would the level of benefit be to the organisation (savings, happier staff etc) if we transformed this service? Green for lots, red for little, amber for somewhere in the middle
How hard would it be to transform this service? Green for easy, red for nightmare, amber for somewhere in the middle
If you are running this exercise before choosing which service to transform, this analysis will help you decide whether a particular service is a good candidate. If you’ve already fixed on a service to transform, the outcome of this might a) change your mind; or b) decide how to approach it.
The local digital declaration is three years old as I go to keyboard. I was privileged enough to be around at the time it was being put together, had some small input into it, and helped to promote it. I think it is well and truly a good thing.
What it does is define for the whole local government sector what digital is all about. It removes those misunderstandings that digital is just about channel shift, or better websites, or one single other thing. It explains that while good digital is not just about technology, it also is about technology, and how you have to get that and the culture right to make progress.
Hundreds of councils have signed up to it. Many did so, I am sure, because it was a commitment to doing things right, and because they believed in it. I suspect some signed up because they wanted to be in the cool crowd, even though they weren’t really bought into the whole thing. Plenty signed up because it meant they could apply for some funding. That’s a shame, but it’s understandable.
The truth is, signing up to the declaration is easy (thanks to it being a good digital service!). Living up to it is hard, and I would wager that not one single council could really say they are living and breathing every ambition and commitment in there. But that’s ok – it’s fine to be aspirational, as long as you are actively aspiring, and not just doing nothing.
Signing the declaration, or making a big deal of trying to meet all of its statements if you signed it a while ago, is a great way of getting some momentum going on your digital work.
Here’s 5 ways how to get cracking right away:
Use it to get the bosses excited about digital
Get some senior people together on a Teams or Zoom call, and take them through the declaration. Focus on the elements of it that are likely to resonate with them, such as:
fixing the plumbing of poorly implemented line of business software and untangling the spaghetti of multiple systems that overlap and don’t talk to each other (apologies for the metaphor mixing)
focus on the transformation of organisational culture and ways of working, which will be at the top of many people’s minds, particular now as we exit the lockdown of 2021
emphasise the potential for sharing technology, research, experience and knowledge through the network of signatories, including the great funded projects that can be tapped into
maybe mention the funding too if there’s still some available. Free money always goes down well
Encourage the leadership that this presents a clear to do list to become a sector leader in digital, as long as there is some commitment to making it happen – and maybe have a few small exmaples up your sleeve of things you could get on with quickly, and can report back to show progress.
A key part of the declaration is bringing the really positive open working culture of the internet age into our organisations. The best way to do that? Start blogging.
Seriously, it is not hard – and it is a great test of your mettle as a change agent in your organisation, and of your organisation’s commitment to the digital agenda, particularly if the culture where you work is one where blogging is a tricky thing to get started with.
There are loads of models to follow, but the really easy one to do, I would suggest, is:
register a blog at wordpress.com – it’s free and easy, and you don’t need to ask permission to do it. Call it something like [Name of Council] Digital – simples.
write some weeknotes. Just a quick bulleted list of what you’ve done that week, if your nervous, or try something more contemplative if you’re confident about it. Check out the web of weeknotes site operated by Matt Jukes for inspiration.
when you’ve published a few posts, show your boss and explain how it helps meet the declaration thing you spoke at with them a few weeks ago. Ask if you can email a link to your weeknote to the leadership team every week to get them interested
Boom! You’re on your way to an open, digital culture. Now get cracking on laptop stickers and posters.
Run some service assessments
Sometimes this is seen as an incredibly daunting thing to do, but actually done the right way service assessing is a great way of introducing people to what is really important in delivering good digital services.
Now, for those working with very estblishment outfits like GDS and others, service assessments can be pretty formal gateway style checkpoints, to prevent poor digital services from going live. That’s exactly how it should be for such organisations, but if you’re just starting out, then a bit of compromise is needed.
Instead, use the service assessment process to demonstrate to folk across your organisation what good looks like, and how much of a positive impact just doing a bit of user research could have, or how we could be really sure our information security is spot on, or indeed how we could have saved money if we’d just used that thing IT bought last year, rather than buying another new thing just for this service.
Find some enthusiastic friendly folk to be on your panel. If you can find someone from another organisation who has done it before, all the better. People don’t need to be digital experts, they just need to be interested and curious, and maybe have had a read of the service standard beforehand, and be good at asking sensible questions.
At the end, rather than a strict go/no go decision on whether the service can go live, you’ll have a list of improvement that could be made to it, or maybe a checklist of things to do on the next service you’ll work on.
At Croydon we did a very early service assessment on our own digital blog which was a great, low risk place to start. Here’s the summary report which gives a flavour, and how it’s not that scary a process, not really.
Get involved in a funded project
The declaration fund enabled a lot of projects to get going, and several of them have survived into being in a usable state. That sounds like faint praise, but it isn’t – it’s only right as you go through the cycle of discovery to alpha then beta then live that some stuff drops out along the way. We can’t do everything all the time, after all.
Take a look through, especially those that made it to the beta phase, as these really ought to be thing you can make use of. I’m particularly proud of LocalGovDrupal – an open source, website in a box for councils that is now being used by several councils, including Brighton and Croydon.
If you’re at the right stage to make use of something built by the sector for the sector, then that has to be a great win for you, your organisation and your digital plans.
Join some networks and start sharing
Collaboration is key to the declaration, which is music to my ears. It’s what drives SensibleTech, after all, and inspires me to share this stuff with you all.
You can get together with others in exactly the same position as you in other organisations up and down the country by connecting through groups such as LocalGovDigital and OneTeamGov. There’s also a bunch of helpful people on Twitter who you can track down and LinkedIn can be useful too for meeting folk and finding out what others are up to.
A few months ago, I recorded this chat with Kit Collingwood, from the Royal Borough of Greenwich, about her work at the council, the new digital strategy she authored, and how she and her team are tackling the many challenges facing those working in digital in local government.
Stefan at Strategic Reading said about this interview:
This video conversation is modestly billed as a CDO chat, but is actually a master class in strategy development and application. The approach is deceptively simple. Two people who bring both depth of experience and thoughtful reflection range over everything from rapid mobilisation in the face of a pandemic, through the vital importance of using data effectively, the challenges of dealing with dominant vendors, creating a team with the right balance of expertise and humility, and giving that team the support to design and build services which meet the needs of people outside and inside the organisation.
The mechanics of making digital change happen in an organisation can be really complicated. What works in one place may well not stick in another. It all depends on strategy, structures, politics and personalities.
One common approach is to have a clearly defined digital programme. In many ways it makes perfect sense: you have a strategy in place, and a programme to implement that strategy. Having a programme helps you bid for some (most likely capital) money to help make it happen, you get a clear timescale to work to, and some benefits (savings!) to realise – not forgetting a programme board to report back to the big-wigs on how you’re progressing. What’s not to like?
Let’s look at the pros:
Unlocks money ✅
Allows you to recruit people ✅
Buys technology ✅
Clarity of purpose ✅
Clear governance ✅
Sounds pretty good! But wait, there’s cons too…
Capital money will disappear ❌
Those people you recruit are only there for the length of the programme ❌
Have you set aside time and money to ensure your new digital products are transitioned to BAU support? ❌
What are you going to do about continuous improvement? ❌
How are you going to keep those big-wigs excited about turning up to your board, two years in? ❌
The admin overhead can be significant if you aren’t careful – who is updating the programme plan, and generating the highlight reports? ❌
You’re on the hook for those savings – are they really in your power to deliver? ❌
The last point is crucial and getting consensus on this early is vital. Capital funds for programmes are usually given on the basis of a business case – in other words, for every £1 invested, £3 is expected to be saved. But, whilst the money is funding digital activity, the savings won’t be coming from the digital team – they will be created within the departments where services are being redesigned. As part of a programme, there must therefore be absolute clarity on what savings are coming from where – and a willingness to offer them up when the time comes.
A digital programme brings focus, and resources. It will get you going for sure. The danger is that it is temporary and they rarely allow for the planning and investment needed to maintain a new digital estate in a business as usual situation.
They can also become real pressure cooker environments, causing stress, anxiety and burnout – so you do have to make sure you look after yourself and your team, especially in the run up to board meetings.
Sounds like I am pretty against digital programmes. Perhaps I am – my preference would always be to build a permament team to do this stuff. Make digital change the business as ususal! It takes out a lot of the stress and anxiety, and makes it far easier to embed digital ways of working, and the core concepts and culture of agile, user centred design and so on.
However, in the real world, creating a digital programme is a mandate to get things done, as well as a shortcut to funds, which means people and new technology, if you need it. If you do go down the programme route, then the two most important things to get in place, for me, are:
agreement and clarity on savings and where they come from
a plan for the transition to BAU for the new digital services, and a properly funded regime of continuous improvement.