Top Issues Facing Govt In Implementing Digital, Data and Technology strategies.
I’m hardly a regular tweeter, so when I posed the following question to the twitter-verse, the high levels of engagement suggest it touched a nerve.
The purpose of this post is to summarise the responses so they might be shared with leaders who are curious about what needs to change in their own organisations.
The good news is that these are not intractable problems and there are people working in teams right across the public sector (and probably your own organisation) who have already got started, and need a helping hand.
The bad news is that together these issues represent systemic, complex change which means that its only the top leaders of an organisation who are well placed to do something about them.
1. Opex over Capex
For the UK Government, the Treasury Green Book provides guidance on how to ‘appraise policies, programmes and projects’. It’s based on infrastructure projects that have a beginning, middle and end.
Capabilities that deliver long term value to more than one service at a time (think systems and technologies that you can use many times over) require recurring, long lived, funding streams.
Funding can be a root cause of poor technology. Technology funded as a capital investment or project with a start and finish date not only locks in legacy thinking about tech as a ‘cost centre’, it also increases cost, duplication and fragmentation by effectively starting from ‘0’ every time.
Change the way your organisation funds technology by determining its value, not its cost.
2. Outcomes over silos
For those of us who work in government, we call this ‘Departmentalism’. Central government is organised along autonomous sectorial lines — health, education, justice, tax, benefits and so on — with a tenuous link to local authorities who deliver many localised front line services.
Citizens shouldn’t need to care about how its government is organised. Becoming a digital first government means organising around the needs of the citizen or your customers.
As a leader, change how you reward and promote people for collaborative behaviours, and in doing so, actively incentivise individuals to join up across autonomous units and work towards shared missions and goals.
3. Co-Design over No Design
In the commercial world, profit is the motivating force: Organisations in competitive industries know that good customer experience delivers value.
In a democratic system, Ministers and their policies rightly provide the motivating force.
However, who within the system of government is looking to design for an improved user experience? Who is responsible for it? How might we better co-design policy with users, so that we know what works before taking it to scale?
As a leader, place user experience and co-design at the heart of your organisational approach and ensure that the executive team shares responsibility for it.
4. ‘With’ others over ‘to’ others
Aaron Dignan in ‘Brave New Work’ writes
‘Leaders tend to control change. They review and approve everything as if they were building a custom home.’
Which is too bad, because the uncomfortable truth for leaders is that in the complex, adaptive world in which we all now live and work, the knowledge, the skills and the will to change is in the system and its teams. People don’t resist change. They resist change being done to them. We value what we create.
Leaders need to forego command and control behaviours. Be vulnerable, curious and notice what is working well. The leaders role is not a passive one. It’s about active enquiry, intervening when things work and taking them to scale.
5. The How over the What
We’re used to talking about technical debt but what about organisational debt? The practice, policy, procedures, structures and systems that pile up over time, that clog up our time and impede our decision making. Adding digital, data and technology roles to this environment rarely makes much material difference to how the organisation goes about its work.
The whole organisation needs to change.
Redesign the blank spaces between the boxes and lines on an organisational chart — how we share power, make decisions, organise teams, plan and prioritise and how we learn and evolve. Make structural change the last thing you reach for. Not the first.
6. Skilled leaders over more consultants
We’ve all worked in organisations where consultants drain brain power away from teams, where technology is outsourced to dysfunctional monopolies, where hiring in lots of junior colleagues doesn’t counter the lack of senior professionals who know what good looks like, and where investment in people and skills are oft talked about but rarely acted upon with serious intent and commitment.
To shift the dial, consider starting at the top. Ensure that every senior leader in your organisation understands the opportunities and challenges of developing modern-era digital, data and technology capabilities and the role that all senior leaders must share in creating conditions for success.
7. Capabilities over functions
The UK government pursues a government strategy of ‘functionalism’. The central idea is a good one, develop more skilled specialists in professions such as finance, commercial, communications, digital, data and technology.
However, if we define specialists as a function, separate and distinct from the general work of the organisation, we box professionals into silos and restrict value creation.
Consider organising digital, data and technology as capabilities — like speed and scalability or insight and responsiveness — that deliver value across and with your organisation.
8. Stopping over Starting
A big risk to doing new stuff is the stuff we’re already doing. All organisations share this problem . In government — it can be next level. A ‘torrential demand for policy changes’ (@thomread), ‘constant change’ (@angelah), ‘massive complexity, so much work in progress, constant change (@joeblairkey).
Value can be derived from stopping some things rather than starting new things. Change requires space and time. The role of leadership is to make the space for change to happen.
9. Dull and Worthy over Exciting and New
Legacy IT can be the biggest hidden drag on your organisation’s future. It’s dull, worthy and essential work.
As a leader, invite teams to talk to you about legacy IT and support them with the time and cash to do something about it. Your organisation cannot outperform its technology. Think of it as the engine beneath the bonnet of the car you’re driving. It’s not going to go any faster just because you keep asking it to.
The thoughtful and generous responses to my question affirmed why I choose to stay working in the public sector.
What attracted was the mission to improve how we design and deliver services. What keeps me is a community of talented, committed, generous individuals who I continuously learn with.