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Conference calls for National level leadership in the digital space

Written by Mark Thompson, Strategy Director of Methods

Our 2017 National Digital Conference at London’s St Pancras Hotel got off to a flying start with a welcome from our Chair, Francis Maude. In a short, 5-minute address, Francis managed to say two things I loved: First, that government is one of the few places where disruption is thought to be a bad thing; and second, that all organisations are either getting better, or they’re getting worse; there’s no such thing as staying the same; no ‘business as usual’ anymore – and that innovation and disruption of the status quo on government is therefore essential – or we’ll just get worse.

Ed Vaizey then followed up with a hilarious account of his getting sacked by incoming PM Theresa May – an incident which, as Minister for telecommunications, involved loss of signal halfway through the ‘event’ (Ed wondered if performance of the infrastructure related to his sacking in some way…) He did actually make one or two serious points as well – chiefly about the need to hasten the rollout of the 5G network and fibre to the home – a note which struck home to me as someone trying unsuccessfully to connect a cottage outside Cheltenham to the internet in 2017 – an ask that has been met with a narrow range of institutional responses from suppliers ranging from indifference/bureaucratic inertia to outright hostility.

Interestingly, both Francis and Ed also called out the need for more national-level leadership in the digital space (in my Chair’s opening comments, I had drawn attention to government’s publication of no less than three digital strategies thus far in 2017). Does Caroline Noakes have any digital experience? Could she explain how she expects the internet to impact forms of social, economic, and cultural exchange over the coming decades, along the way transforming the operating model of public services? I sincerely hope so for all our sakes.

But back to the Conference. Next up was TechUK’s Jacqueline de Rojas, whose theme was the blistering and accelerating pace at which the global technology industry is accelerating – an industry that certainly won’t hang around waiting for government to sort out a leisurely Brexit. Jacqueline’s take on ‘the fourth revolution’ is that the UK needs to become more productive, we need a much smarter state (supported by Govtech) to support this (digital jobs are being reated twice as fast as jobs in other sectors), an adaptable workforce, and a more mature security framework (11.5% of all cross-border data flows through the UK!). Our fourth keynote was Emma Jones, SME Crown Rep for Small Business, who called for the current contracts finder system to be simplified to facilitate not only finding contracts, but also bidding and procurement.

Following these three excellent keynotes, the balance of the conference was organised thematically into ‘delivery’, ‘born disruptors’ (young digital), innovation, and skills: a keynote for each, followed by panel discussions. On ‘delivery’, we heard from and Lloyds Banking Group’s Nick Williams, who noted the millennial value of ‘wellbeing over wealth’ – wryly commenting that trust had become the hardest for organisations to earn, but the easiest to lose in the digital age. The resulting prescription: ‘know your frenemies’: we need to open up and ‘be human’ in digital, but we also need to be rigorously secure. During the ensuing panel discussion UKCloud’s Simon Hansford discusses several concrete steps that government can take to encourage SMEs in delivery, and EQ Digital’s Brian Fitzpatrick spoke about how the forthcoming GDPR can be used to drive more effective digital delivery in the here and now.

We then heard from three awe-inspiring ‘born disruptors’, chaired very ably by Maggie Philbin: three very young and impressive achievers who held the conference rapt for an easy hour. Jessy Okoro drew attention to the way in which the current STEM engagement formula makes it hard for marginalised groups to access; Jack Parsons discussed his mission to connect 2 million young people to opportunities by 2020; and Molly Watt shared her experiences offering expert opinion to organisations on assistive technology (she and Jessy are looking for organisational engagement (@jessyokoroSTEM, and @mollywatttalks).

On ‘innovation’, Daniel Korski talked about the Govtech sector – which at £6.6billion is pulling level with Fintech and could be worth £20billion by 2020. Daniel pointed to the opportunity for the UK to lead the emergence of Govtech as a new industry – and his expectation that this would be led from SMEs, not established corporates. Kainos’ Helen Ferris spoke about the need for ‘continuous security’ – a great phrase, it seemed to me – whilst addressing the considerable legacy headache within public services – and Informed Solutions’ Elizabeth Vega called for the need for a continued receptiveness to SMEs on the part of government.

On ‘skills’, Axelos’ Cameron Stewart pointed out the need for greater adaptability and resilience within the transient roles we’re all seeing more of, GDS’ Holly Ellis discussed her drive to build rounded digital skills in Whitehall spanning agile and more traditional frameworks, and Good Things Foundation’s Helen Milner provided a reminder of the need to maintain our focus on using digital to bring about social change, and the new opportunities that come with acquiring digital skills.

We also had a couple of fascinating one-to-one interviews. Accenture’s Emma McGuigan interviewed Defra’s Clare Moriarty, whom I thought gave one of the most sharply together sessions on digital I’ve ever heard in government. Clare’s theme seemed to be ‘open’ and ‘undesign’: redesigning Defra’s services by ‘changing the organisation to keep up with the world we live in’. She described how she’s building a digital infrastructure allowing custom interaction across the myriad touchpoints the organisation has with customers and staff, whilst dealing with the whole systematically. She discussed a ‘first data revolution’ – dealing with individuals’ data to enable them to interaction online – and a ‘second data revolution’ – mass data, and the need to perform analytics on the entire data landscape. She provided the example of opening up Defra’s flood data to the public – and monitoring how this is used by a range of organisations spanning the Red Cross and Facebook. This is ‘undesign’: not trying to second-guess beforehand what the public will use datasets for, but just releasing them.

Finally, Methods’ Mike Beaven interviewed DWP’s Mayank Prakash. Again, Mayank sounded completely on top of his brief, talking really engagingly about the introduction of the design thinking ‘double diamond’ into the organisation, which always asks ‘what problem are we trying to solve?’ before charging off to build staff. Mayank described how they are breaking established processes at DWP ‘at pace’: for example, ditching the traditional Red-Amber-Green system of monitoring project risk. Very interestingly, he’s also a champion of ‘teal organisation’ – an empowered organisational form that replaces traditional command-and-control with genuine discretion and responsibility, for people; with twelve applicants for every tech job at DWP, this is obviously working.

So, all in all some of the most genuinely thought-provoking sessions of any of the ND’s I’ve had the privilege to chair. Once again, I was left feeling humbled by the sheer calibre, enthusiasm, and dedication of people spending their lives trying to modernise our public services for the digital age, and proud to share their mission. A plea to those who lead us in the critical few years to come – be this Theresa, Boris, Jeremy, or whomever: please can we have a cabinet-level minister with dedicated responsibility for digital transformation of government? These people, and the many like them, deserve no less.

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