Beyond the Shallows: New Digital Leadership

James Reeve
Jan 8 · 4 min read

By James Reeve and Rose Mortada

This is the first post in a three-part series which will look at how digital leadership in government is changing and what we need from new digital leaders. This first post is about why change is necessary.

It was just over a year ago that we took over the reins of DfE’s first digital delivery team from our friend and colleague Mark Stanley. It’s been tougher, more chaotic and more emotional than we could have imagined but it’s also been an absolute privilege. We’ve learned incredible amounts from teachers, social workers, children and many others who we serve at the DfE. We’ve grown the team, learned about our people, ourselves and the tumultuous world of digital delivery in government. All of this learning can make us feel what our team have come to refer to as “whelmed”. Learning fast can be hard to process but it’s so important because it keeps us questioning ourselves, experimenting with new things and figuring out what will help us improve.

Samuel Walters: The British merchantman Clifford in a stiff breeze, on return from her maiden voyage.

This has inspired us to share our thoughts about the evolution of what’s being asked of us as digital specialists. It’s also generated some nautical metaphors so please bear with us.

A recent history of digital change

Change comes in waves — though given the pace of change in government sometimes perhaps tides would be more appropriate.

A photo of the tide coming in

Tides of change don’t happen every day. They’re hard to affect and require a healthy dose of luck. The last significant one was the introduction of the Government Digital Service (GDS) in April 2011. Visionary leadership and hard work led to a sweeping tide of transformation across government.

GDS did amazing things, giving us the service standard and service manual as our map and compass. They pointed to users as the North Star. Their exemplar programme created the opportunity for services that really put the needs of the user before internal processes, stakeholder whims or wind direction; consequently UK government became and remains a world leader in this space.

But take a look at the list of GDS exemplars: The most successful have been those that had a clearly defined policy prior to the creation of the digital service. Others like the Claim Personal Independence Payment (PIP) service where the policy and delivery have been developed more simultaneously have been much slower to develop — and that particular service is still in alpha.

We’re still feeling this divide between policy and delivery at DfE and elsewhere in government, five years after Mike Bracken spoke about this tension, three years since James started blogging about it and two years since OneTeamGov.

Shameless screenshot of Mike from the youtube video of his speech to the Institute for Government. Sorry Mike.

Sailing into uncharted waters

We didn’t write this to moan about unresolved historical issues. We wrote it because we think we’re seeing the signs that government is gearing up for a new tide of change. We have a new government. Blogs are back en vogue. Much of the low-hanging fruit of mandatory government services is gone. The next services aren’t transactional; they are policy. GDS helped us to get here — but now the water’s getting deeper, the wind’s up and things are getting harder.

At DfE we’ve seen growing demand for services which are optional, operate in a market, or target user wants, not user needs.

These problems aren’t entirely new but need a different approach from the mandatory services of GDS’s exemplar programme because they:

  • account for how users feel as well as what they need, to be inclusive of a whole experience rather than just utility of a service
  • may need to deviate from GOV.UK design patterns and styling to compete for attention in a market
  • need to market, sell and communicate differently

So what?

This introduces all sorts of new complexities and a greater need for policy and digital people to plan, test and learn together, without tying ourselves up in knots. It needs greater levels of trust for people doing the delivery and different styles of leadership and governance.

We need new and bold leadership to chart the right course. We got this from GDS (v1.0) — and now it’s time for something new: Are we ready for v2.0?

Our team at the Department for Education are starting to think about what all this means for us — and in the next post, we’ll explore that further.

James Reeve

Written by

Husband, Dad, Chemist and Civil Servant @ DfE, all views my own.

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