Digital government in the UK is having a reflective moment. Senior leaders have left the Government Digital Service (GDS). People are ringing the death-knell. Other people are encouraging us to keep going. I think we should be more ambitious. Let’s get better at making government better.
What I learned at GDS
When you leave GDS, it’s traditional to write about what you learned there. I learned a lot at GDS and I try to think before I speak, so this post arrives almost 2 years after I left.
At GDS I helped to create, and learned to use, a toolkit for digital transformation. This toolkit goes from bunting and cake, through stand ups and roadmaps, to saying a firm and convincing ‘no’ to important people.
I learned a lot from the people I worked with who have resigned. These are some of the more personal things I learned. From Mike, I learned to talk about the importance of discipline in our work. This is something I remember Mike mentioning over and over again at GDS all-hands meetings. From Russell, I learned it is important to communicate things clearly, over and over again. I’m still working on being as clear as Russell. From Ben, I learned the value of visible enthusiasm. I’m unlikely to ever achieve Ben-like levels of visible enthusiasm. From Tom, I learned that it’s important to do the hard work to make things simple, and that your colleagues appreciate it when you make them laugh.
(I didn’t work much with Leisa, but I sure I’d have learned lots from her if I did).
What I learned #ofthegovernment
I got better at doing what I learned at GDS by doing it in other places.
When I left GDS and did similar work in different places, I learned it’s harder to be a digital person in another government organisation (or another not-very-digital-organisation) than it is in GDS. This makes it more rewarding and gives you space to develop your own personal style of digital government. You get better at doing digital government.
You don’t have a Mike, Russell, Tom or Ben to back you up. You don’t have access to the range of digital skills you do in GDS. So you have to learn to be Mike, Russell, Tom and Ben yourself, and round that out with some Felicity, Kathy, Leisa, Lindsey, Emer, Meri and Ade.
Outside the mothership (which was really a fathership), I learned what my personal style of digital transformation is. The GDS Design Principles that mean most to me, and which I prioritise in my work, are Start with needs, Do the hard work to make it simple, This is for everyone, and Understand context. I listen to civil servants more than GDS does (shock!). I place more emphasis on the needs of professional users than GDS does (horror!). I do my best to create more diverse teams.
These things are important to me. I think they make my work better.
Let’s get better at making government better
The first few years of GDS have taught us to have big ambition, to make improvements no one believes can be made, and to be true to our beliefs. I learnt this in GDS and re-learnt it in departments.
The lesson is that we must keep getting better at digital government. That must be our ambition.
This is different from lots of recent articles about people leaving GDS. They present the options as a) it gets worse or b) it carries on as it was. I want option c) it gets better.
Jason touched on this this in his post #ofthegovernment, not on the government, when he wrote that there are needs for digital services that haven’t even been built yet. Andrew hinted at it in It shouldn’t need a war this time, when he said that we need “people with better answers” on digital and data.
I don’t know what better looks like yet, but I’m going to try my hardest to get there, first at UK Trade and Investment I where I’m currently working. (And setting up a digital services team. Get in touch if you want to make digital government better with me).
We can do better than just carrying on. Let’s get better at making government better.
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Header image by GDS https://www.flickr.com/photos/gdsteam/14064124815/sizes/l