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PA OPINION

How public services can embrace the Second Wave of Digital

Digital innovation is the only way public sector organisations can deliver outstanding services in an era of funding cuts, political uncertainty and changing human behaviour. 

Digital and automation make services available anytime, anywhere, lowering the cost of delivery and letting public servants focus on bigger problems and the most vulnerable in society.

But digital keeps evolving. Instability and insecurity, like Brexit and the WannaCry virus, force rapid change.  And citizens have new demands - carers log on at 2:00am because that’s the only time they have, and they do so on smartphones because that’s their only device.

The only way to continuously adapt and respond to these changing times is to capitalise on the Second Wave of Digital public services. You’ll need an Agile approach to evolve at scale and speed, and we have three steps to implementing one:

1. Think big - and think user

Where do you want to be in 2025 and why? Think ‘Art of the Possible’ not ‘Process of the Do-able’. Focus on what your end user wants rather than the obstacles in your way.

Create an ambitious and compelling case for change with customer needs front and centre to get everyone on the same page. This will be more understandable than buzz-words like ‘customer-centric’, ‘automation’, ‘data driven’ and ‘agile’.

We recently went through this process with an NHS Agency that wanted to capitalise on the Second Wave of Digital. Seventy attendees from more than 10 organisations - including policymakers, industry bodies and patients – all working together to tackle a big question:

How can digital accelerate the delivery of life-changing treatments?

The group finished the exercise united and determined to provide a more patient-led service - and having patients in the room kept discussions focussed. That meant board approval was quickly given and small spring-board projects could start to build momentum and confidence.

2. Start small – and fail fast

And that’s the next step – start with small projects. Design, experiment, sprint and prototype on a small scale, engaging the end customers in the process. Transformation is a big ask, so make it a series of small changes that build momentum for bigger things.

For example, a retailer wanted to move from a product-based model to a service based offer – a fundamental change.

We worked closely with them to develop a minimum viable product (MVP) in under twelve weeks. We tested it with customers so we could analyse and assess whether we met their needs. And now functionality is being fleshed out to a final product while also being scaled to a commercial solution.

Without starting small by quickly building and testing an MVP through multi-disciplinary teams, it might never have got off the drawing board.

3. Scale fast – and get services out there

Once functionality has been proven by starting small, things need to scale to reach all your end users. That requires the technical and business foundations to move fast and respond rapidly.

You need to be able to get code live quickly, deliver multiple projects simultaneously, and co-ordinate everything with the right governance. Staff also need to be trained so new services can live and evolve for years to come.

So how do we do that?

Invest in automation

Automate as much as you can to reduce the burden on testing and deployment. This makes it easy to react quickly.

Synchronise your teams

Ensure policy officers, digital teams, IT teams and end users are working closely to deliver in an agile way.

Adapt your architectures

Create technical architectures that use re-usable services. Business and organisational architectures should be able to adapt to change. And processes need to be re-invented to ensure they work in sync.

Build your capability

Build a digital workforce by attracting the best digital talent, training existing staff with programmes like the GDS Academy, and retaining the knowledge of experienced staff.

Adapt governance and delivery structures

Bring policy, strategy and delivery much closer together and empower your teams to deliver with performance management to match.

Engage leadership

More than just supporting and endorsing, leadership needs to be engaged, attentive and actively helping bridge the gulf between policy, strategy and delivery.

The Second Wave of Digital is critical to achieving the ambitions of the public sector. Those who adapt their approaches and leadership styles are the ones who will meet citizens’ constantly evolving expectations.

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