Digital Transformation at Scale – a review

Digital Transformation at Scale – why the strategy is delivery, by the founders of the Government Digital Service, promises not just to be a tale about the GDS. If it were, it would be a fine and important book. The service was created in response to a letter from Martha Lane Fox to Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude. The subsequent achievements of the service are significant. The GOV.UK website it created and the 10–20 ‘exemplar’ transactional services have set new expectations and standards for the way that government operates online.

Indirectly, the ripple effect of GDS may be even more significant. The Service Standard, the service design manual, the global press attention and the thousands of blogposts inspired a generation of people to spend part of their careers working for government, and existing public services to dare to be different.

However, the book aims to be a manual for conducting digital transformation at scale. By this measure, I was left disappointed. It frequently falls into the trap of arguing that ‘because we did this, therefore this must be done’. On a prosaic level, the sections on writing strategies and giving good presentations are useful, but non-core (unless they’re part of a strategic play of which more, later). The section on political sponsorship basically tells readers to have a political sponsor called Francis Maude.

The authors argue that ‘the strategy is delivery’ – by which they mean redesigning the government’s transactional services to be ‘of the internet’. I always assumed that to mean that rapid delivery of transactional services would mean the customer relationship with government changed before anyone had time to argue. The front cover of the book is a photo of a ‘done’ stamp (the like of which appears on a completed user story). The book is a guide to achieving ‘done’ in digital service delivery.

But what if the strategy shouldn’t be digital delivery? Digital transformation is about applying the culture, practices, processes and technologies of the internet-era to respond to people’s raised expectations – as defined by Tom Loosemore, one of the authors. Therefore, it is not a technical change that can be ‘done’ but adaptive change that needs to be stimulated, grown and worked towards.

“Most of government is service design, most of the time”, as the book reflects. However, most of that service design has nothing to do with transactional services delivered by government IT, but instead is manifested in policy designed for others to deliver. A digital transformation strategy might instead, show, train and encourage leaders, policy makers and government agencies (including local government) in digital practice.

You could start with a greenfield service, redesign the website at pace and move on to digital services – tactics advocated by the authors. Better presentations are also tactics which can gain senior confidence and support.

But if the public, and civil servants, see government as a policy making function, this may leave the raison d’etre of government untransformed, unchallenged. It’s notable that the government’s signature policies of the GDS era were either untouched by digital (big society), ignored it completely (NHS reforms) or struggled because of it (Universal Credit).

The book fails to explore the trade-offs between a strategy of delivery and a strategy of organisational change. Delivering services at pace shows that IT can be done quickly, not that government can achieve policy intent faster. Redesigning existing services doesn’t create new value propositions for citizens or influence leaders’ visions of what’s possible. And as necessary as it is to hire digital specialisms, the vast majority of staff are left unaffected.

It’s not that the book is unreflective – it mentions a number of things that would have been done differently and they’ve previously talked of ‘putting lipstick on a pig’. But there isn’t a clear vision for a digital government. The closest the book gets to describing the point of it all is:

“a lever to change the relationship between citizen and the state for the better. This is the real prize: a vast improvement in the efficacy of the state and a resultant upsurge in democratic engagement”.

One of the key recommendations in the Fox letter was the creation of APIs to enable third parties to connect with, and build government services. This might have enabled a very different vision for modern government. For example, health and social care integration or changing the relationship between central and local government would have become simpler and enabled leaders to make different decisions – demonstrating political benefits of digital. Ultimately, this was only partially achieved – and (in my understanding) outside GDS. That’s what we’re doing in Hackney.

But we expressly aren’t writing a digital strategy, because we think digital should be everywhere and for everyone. The tactics we’re using are designed to promote digital understanding, behaviours and leadership – enabling our senior political and officer leadership to think differently about the place and the organisation they lead.

I haven’t achieved digital transformation at scale, but do owe the authors a huge debt for the knowledge they’ve given me and body of work they delivered. But I suspect there are alternative visions and strategies to achieve a government of the Internet, even if the tactics in the book remain useful.