Digital Transformation: Doing the correct thing, the correct way

Written by Simon Cooper

Over the last three years, UK Government departments have been transforming public services by doing the correct thing, the correct way. From what I’ve experienced across Government these are — in my view — the vital ingredients needed to ensure successful digital transformation — not just in the public sector. Without these, you’re guaranteed an embarrassing failure and, at best, you’ll build the wrong thing well (fail).

Correct approach

From the outset — like any good transformational change — defining what digital means for your organisation and top-down commitment is essential. This definition should be widely shared and consistent. These leaders should then adopt agile governance that supports fast delivery with speedy decision-making enabling delivery within months, not year cycles.

Such decision-making should not just be relating to decisions regarding the design of your service but consider the complete customer experience (both on and offline channels). It must also cover the commercials and resource deployments necessary to make it happen through each of the discovery, alpha, beta and go-live stages.

Agile software development requires an agile culture across the organisation for it to be successful — many organisations can stumble as they fail to re-design waterfall governance and decision-making processes that ultimately restrict successful delivery. This is a challenge that government has had to grapple with and still does today some years on.

Failing to place digital at the heart of the organisation at the top table will ensure that you do not release the true power of digital. Ideally, investment decision-making should be in the hands of digital leaders and that leader must be empowered and therefore, a member of your board.

Developing your service using agile methodologies that empower delivery is more likely to ensure early value and overall success compared to pursuing big bang, waterfall solutions. At the UK Government Digital Service (GDS), the 3 of the 25 exemplars that did not fully deliver within the timescale of the programme had pursued ‘big bang’ implementations, used business led designs and adopted waterfall approaches.

The most successful services — including the four exemplars at the Ministry of Justice like the prison booking service — adopted iterative development, user-led design approaches and then continuous improvement. This helped to release early value at lower cost creating positive net present value.

The aim — and one of the lasting legacies of the Exemplar Programme across Government — is to build your own in-house capability, knowledge and experience. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) have developed their own Digital Academies with graduates completing courses at centres in London/ Leeds, undertaking short-placements at other government departments and, critically, have digital roles to use their new skills. As the DWP’s recent Civil Service Award nomination has illustrated, I can see how Departments have recognised that suppliers play a key role in the building of in-house digital talent for the future. Suppliers are working hand-in-hand with a number of departments to develop civil servants and ensure that future reliance on suppliers is diminishing. I think that this will ensure that digital transformation becomes progressively more cost efficient.

Digital organisations have created a strong and visible service and product culture. Such organisations do not underestimate the impact that a great workspace can have on innovation and delivery within the organisation. Creating the correct environment ensures that employees have the freedom and the flexibility to work where they want, when they want. GDS has revolutionised the working environment in government — this is more than tinsel. The GDS approach has brought together digital, operations, policy and suppliers and seen innovative digital services that are faster, smarter and better created. There’s something immediately energising seeing screens of how many users are using your service when your walk into such an environment.

Correct thing

Start with user-led design. Your service and content design must be based on user research. Leave your perceptions at the door and invest the time in going out and finding the users of your service to truly understand their needs. These findings should drive everything you develop, not what your organisation’s employee at your head office thinks. This represents a huge cultural change for many organisations.

The best digital services are incredibly easy to use which doesn’t always do justice to the work that goes into building them. The UK Visas and Immigration Visa Exemplar spent hours meeting immigration tourist agents and migrants in China to understand how users would find and use the service rather than just making assumptions from London. Continuous user research and testing is critical for iterating the service to ensure that users can use it first time, unaided.

Taking a minimum viable product (MVP) approach will release value as soon as possible and critically, inject the pace required for success. For example, the Immigration Health Surcharge Service launched in April 2015 as an MVP allowing millions to be raised to support funding the National Health Service. Using the waterfall methods may well have added another 3–6 months to delivery timescales.

Showing users and stakeholders within your organisation the functionality of the service quickly is tremendously powerful for winning hearts and minds — seeing really is believing! However, you must follow through with iterative improvements based on user feedback including from demonstrating prototypes of your service to a sample of real users. Personally I think that you must also design to integrate with back-end systems to allow straight through processing; this is not yet the norm in government.

Thing correct

Organise the work into small teams. Consider how many people you could feed with two pizzas — that’s how many people you should have. Successful digital transformation requires small teams who deliver frequently and test with users with all of these roles filled to embed best practice agile development and lean thinking methodologies:

Digital Service Manager

Agile product team starting with a Product Manager, Delivery Manager and a User Experience Designer. Then add a Technical architect, Business Analyst, User Researcher, Front and Back end developers as you build from alpha onwards
 Web operations including a Hosting platform developer, Web Operations, Security expert and Infrastructure architect
 Business representatives including Product Owners, users and subject matter experts.

Often the hardest role to fill is that of the Product Owner. Good business representatives must be suitably empowered, able to think strategically — especially when developing MVPs and new platform services — communicate well within the agile team and who bring their business colleagues with them on the transformation journey. Co-location and dedicated resources throughout developing the service will support optimum transformation.

Your team will rely on building enabling relationships for the organisation with commercial suppliers. For the UK Government, this means using the G-Cloud to buy services. The focus should be on being supplied with talented individuals whose ethos is to work in partnership and be managed ‘actually’ rather than purely contractually. Pairing in-house and supplier staff will encourage skills transfer and early termination for failing individuals should be the norm.

Simon’s Summary Checklist

  • Define what digital means for your organisation and secure top-down commitment to digital transformation
  • Place digital at the heart of the organisation with Digital Leaders at the top table
  • Develop agile governance models that empower delivery
  • Build a workplace environment where innovation can thrive
  • Build in-house capability, knowledge, experience
  • Create a strong and visible service and product culture
  • Start with user-led design
  • Take a minimum viable product approach to release early value
  • Embed best practice agile and lean thinking methodologies
  • Build enabling relationships for the organisation with commercial suppliers

Apply these ingredients and the potential is infinite to deliver successful digital transformation at scale.

Simon Cooper leads a Digital and Data team in the Home Office Government Department and was recently part of a team who were awarded prizes as part of the Civil Service Live Innovation Competition. Follow him on twitter @simoncooper74

Originally published at on October 27, 2015.