Digitisation or Transformation? The significance behind the name change of the government strategy
Toplevel strategy director Jane Roberts says digitisation is not a summit to be reached, a goal or achievement in itself; it’s a process that is dynamic and can be constantly revised and improved to fulfil its potential
Digitisation is so last year; now it’s all about transformation. The renaming of the Government Digital Strategy as the Government Transformation Strategy, leaked in early December and expected to be published on Thursday, is more than just a rebrand, however. It aims to show that digitisation is a constant dynamic ongoing process and that “2020 does not represent an end date” for these transformations. The cynics may regard this as simply an example of some serious back-pedalling but this also indicates a more realistic appraisal of what it means to convert to digital working.
Three years ago, Francis Maude benchmarked the progress of e-government in the UK, pointing to the digitisation of 25 public services and sharing his vision for the government-as-a-platform model. He talked of ensuring everyone who could be would be online by 2020, giving the government a very definite deadline. We’re now halfway towards that date. Stating it is no longer the end goal certainly avoids the need to demonstrate how close we are to achieving it. But equally the emphasis HAS changed; there’s now an appreciation that there’s a whole lot more to digital government than simply taking processes online.
There’s a need to extend that provision to back-office processes and to connect disparate systems to eradicate data silos. There’s a need to share and collaborate to maximise the reuse of systems adopted in successful digitisation projects. And there’s a need to embrace digital not as a technology but as a process that emancipates both citizen and staff and paves the way for the adoption of new processes and technologies into the future. In short, digitisation is both continuous and endless.
This cyclical cycle of development creates a real problem for a sector which is very much goal-driven. The idea that a digital project never really ‘ends’ is difficult to accept but it’s critical to do so if current digital deployments are to realise their potential. The deployment is really only the beginning; these projects then need to continue to refresh and adapt. The initial project is no longer just about digitalisation nor even really transformation; it should be about but the evolution of that service.
GDS service standards mandate that for digital services, the public sector should plan and budget for service optimisation going forward. This is to allow for the continued updates and refinements necessary to keep a service in optimal technological shape. But this is still an alien concept for a sector used to spending the allocated capital budget rather then earmarking some for the future. Added to that is a certain cultural reluctance based on a low appetite for continued improvement.
The continued evolution demanded by effective digitisation will require departments to adapt and refine the end product. Some of the most successful implementations have used the agile development method which welcomes change through frequent deliveries in short time spans. Iterative testing at each stage of development allows for alterations to be made during design and development, and post deployment assessments can be made to ensure services continue to align with user need and keep pace with technological development.
The danger is that many digital projects will stop being iterative in approach post-deployment because no allowance has been made in the budget for service optimisation. The service is then only reviewed when it becomes so dated and inaccessible that an ‘upgrade’ is required. This endangers trust in the service and could even see a reverse in channel shift, as users resort to alternative communication channels.
If service optimisation is factored in from the beginning, these digital projects can be almost self-adaptive. There are various ways to do this, from self-service optimisation, whereby teams undertake to test changes and optimise the service themselves, to external support in the form of periodic review cycles. Typically undertaken every six months or every year, these reviews can then be used to structure a mini-project to identify and implement change with minimal disruption and maximum efficiency.
Of course, sometimes changes can’t be timetabled. Perhaps a change is needed following the move to a new operating system, for example. In these urgent cases, an RFC process can be initiated beginning with a requirements capture through to an impact assessment then approval and implementation of change.
Having self-optimisation and contingency plans like this in place will help facilitate moves to more disruptive forms of technology. For instance, the Internet of Things (IoT), set to transform our smart cities, and the emergence of the data economy, which will see people have more access to and control over their own personal data are set to put yet more pressure on digital government going forward. Current digital services will need to integrate with and utilise these new technologies to remain viable. If digital projects have overcome institutional resistance to change and digitisation is seen as a constantly evolving communication mechanism, there will already be self-optimisation processes in place, paving the way for these new technologies to be adopted.
Does this mean digitisation is endless? Yes. But while that seems a difficult concept to grasp it’s also liberating. Because it’s not a summit to be reached, a goal or achievement in itself; it’s a process that is dynamic and can be constantly revised and improved to fulfil its potential. What we must learn to do is accommodate it with budget and through the provision of talent. The digital teams that helped forge today’s digital services are going to play a vital role in the future because it’s they that will usher in a second generation of digital services, helping digital government not merely transform but evolve.
Jane Roberts is strategy director of Toplevel