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PA OPINION

Taking digital public services further, faster

In just two decades, the world has drastically changed. Amazon launched, the first iPhone hit the shelves, and Government Digital Service (GDS) was founded. These are just a few of the digital revolutions that have been released across the public and private sectors in that time. And the pace of change is increasing. It feels like we’re entering a new era of digital.

We call this era the second wave of digital for the public sector. It’s borne of AI and automation, robotics, the Internet of Things, common components, shared platforms and new skills like data science.

This second wave offers great opportunities to benefit society. But to capitalise on it, five key areas need to be aligned – policy, operating models, digital services, IT enablers and skills.

While these may be aligned in theory, they aren’t in reality. The pace of change, siloed thinking and structural inertia are preventing that. To solve this and take digital services further, faster, there are three areas that need to be addressed.

Bring the worlds of policy and digital together

Most government departments still wrestle with three types of employee – policy, digital and operational delivery. They’re yet to evolve a common language or narrative that unifies them, or work out how they merge into a workforce fit for the future.

Often it can feel like there are chasms between digital and other areas. It’s like there are tectonic plates underpinning the organisation, sliding around next to each other without any real integration or collaboration. They need to come together and align to create great things.

We recently helped a UK regulator deliver several new digital services. The initial issue was that, although the digital team knew what best practice was, they found it impossible to implement it because there was a chasm of misunderstanding between policy and delivery. This caused delays and disrupted relationships. We spoke to the leaders in the business and insisted they and their representatives engage fully in the delivery process. Although there was reluctance at first, both sides eventually understood that without collaboration, their services would never work.

We also took time to help the service owners, people from the business, understand the delivery process. We explained user needs, agile working, the GDS Service Standard (and why it’s so important) and why building a service is a long-term commitment, not a short-term project to get something live.

Become Total Digital and ensure services scale

As organisations adapt to the digital age, they ‘bolt’ new services and capabilities onto structures, systems and cultures that were developed over decades. These bolt-ons are often loosely coupled, fragile and misaligned, causing digital friction.

This is most apparent when digitising current processes, like adding a new responsive front-end to a legacy back-end system designed to support processes and policies from an analogue era. Things don’t run smoothly and issues arise.

With everything from cloud IT to agile ways of working being bolted on, there are a lot of moving parts. The only way to effectively manage the required new services and capabilities is to become Total Digital – to put digital at the core of everything you do.

For example, at a large Whitehall department we’re successfully developing and releasing new services using a technical approach based on a micro-services architecture. These micro-services are easy to re-use around the organisation and are very flexible. We’ve also supported the award-winning transition to cloud infrastructure and implemented agile throughout the organisation, not just with the technical teams.

Total Digital - Further, faster in a digital world

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Critically, all these initiatives were designed to scale up quickly. The key to long-term success is to think big, start small and scale fast. We see lots of organisations with great tales of successfully starting small with minimum viable products and exciting hackathons, but many struggle to move up from there. There’s too much start small without the scale fast.

To do that, an organisation’s business architecture must align with its technical architecture. The key technical foundations for digital scaling, like infrastructure and DevOps tooling, will never be successful without the right team structures, skills, governance and leadership.

Ensure a sustainable workforce by mainstreaming digital skills

While digital, data and technology professions are growing in influence, there’s a vital need to increase digital understanding, skills and mind-set throughout departments and agencies. 

It’s time to fully embrace initiatives like the GDS Academy, which has trained around 8,000 civil servants to date, to ensure digital is a core common skill in the public sector rather than a niche specialism. The Digital, Data and Technology Profession Team at GDS is helping, the fast Stream approach is working, and it’s great to see more apprenticeships. But this bottom up approach will take time to transform more established, senior offices.

So, the approach needs to be sustainable. Government departments need to consider how they will show new, digitally-skilled workers they’re valued. For example, building in-house capability has become normal, but so far things haven’t been put in place to attract the teams and make them want careers in government. That requires strategic workforce planning for the digital age, so HR must collaborate across departments and agencies at all levels to understand the needs and culture of the future digital workforce.

For the digital workforce to thrive and be retained, the government culture must also adapt.

Building digital public services will take collaboration

Those that start working on these three areas will see the biggest benefits from the digital world. Each is a big thing to tackle, but they all need collaboration and new ways of working. To start moving forward, everyone needs to look above the day-to-day, align policy, digital and delivery, and break down siloes. Doing this with your colleagues across departments will help take digital services further, faster.

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