What I mean when I say ‘Digital Transformation’

Digital transformation is what I’ve been doing for over 3 years in Government.

However, the key thing about Digital Transformation is that everyone seems to mean something else when they talk about it. My friend Dafydd Vaughan just wrote about what he means by it.

Despite many years of working with Dafydd, and a pretty strong relationship, it looks like we have slightly different views. Actually, I agree with pretty much everything that Daffyd says, with one major exception.

Digital transformation is about a fundamentally different way of thinking.

It’s about designing services from the ground up, based around the needs of the users of the service.

I disagree here. I don’t think digital transformation is about a fundamentally different way of thinking.

Transformation is a journey not a destination

I believe that transformation is not a thing in itself. Transformation is about having a destination in mind, about knowing what you want to transform to, and about knowing how to plot the course from here to there.

Digital transformation to me is about the transformation of organisations from silos, outsourced capability and murky strategic goals, to being an organisation that understands the vision, that knows where it delivers the most value and how to focus on it.

It’s about taking an organisation from an existing position, and giving them a vision of where to go.

What Dai calls digital transformation is what I consider to be the vision. Organisations that focus on the user needs, that understand that doing the hard work to make it simple pays off, and understanding that you need to iterate and iterate again.

What’s the cost?

Asking people to change is never comfortable. As the environment and tools on which government is built change, so to the practices that we apply need to change with it.

To transform Government, we need to transform how we approach many of the processes we are used to. And inertia is built in, it’s built in to how we build, buy, operate and decommission services in Government. The old best practices are built into the policies, the training, the career paths, the budgets and the power structures.

I’m not saying any of that stuff is bad. There is a time and place where those practices are the best way to approach things. But there’s new alternatives, and the old practices don’t take full advantage.

We’re going to get the new stuff wrong. We need to experiment and find out how to best take advantage of new methods. That’s what GDS has been doing for over 4 years now, experimenting and learning what works and what doesn’t, and what scales and what doesn’t.

So what is digital transformation in Government all about?

The answer to this question is going to vary from department to department. But it’s always going to be related to services understanding that they are not the entire user experience.

I met a team recently that came in to demonstrate a service, and their service was acceptable, but to me, I didn’t feel like the could articulate the user needs very well. They thought that the user need was for an application process for the license they provided.

They saw the problem in the shape of the solution they had built, in the shape of the organisation they existed in.

So I sent them back to reconsider before we passed them (That wasn’t the only thing, but it’s the thing that matters for this story).

The team came back after just a few weeks, and were able to clearly explain that the user need wasn’t anything to do with accessing their system. It was for safe vehicles and roads on which to drive.

The team, having realised this, started doing some investigation, and realised that their service they provided consisted of just 1 of about 60 Government services and organisations that the end user, the citizen, has to interact with in order to ensure that vehicles and therefore roads are safe.

That team learnt a huge amount about their service, their users, and have started reaching out to other government departments to understand how they can make that entire journey better for users.

To me, Digital Transformation isn’t where they are now. They haven’t been digitally transformed.

It’s more like an awakening.

Now they can see clearly the challenge that lies ahead, but their eyes are open and they can start to plot a course, to understand the journey and work out where next.

I wish I could take credit for that transformation, but in the end it was entirely that team, working on the feedback we provided, working with their department and reaching across communities in Government.

In the end, to digitally transform Government, we need a grand vision for how Government could be, and to undertake a huge journey in transforming government from here to there.

Make no mistake, that’s a big vision, it requires boldness, leadership, dedication, mistakes, learning and humility.

As a visionary I knew used to say, Onwards!

Michael Brunton-Spall
Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade