Anyone responsible for the digital transformation of a large organisation should begin by asking themselves two simple questions: ‘What can I ship? What can I stop?’
This was the mantra of the UK’s Government Digital Service, and it is one that is being copied around the world. Putting digital leadership into practice is a question of shipping new digital services that meet user needs, and stopping practices that add complexity, expense and false certainty. This is an argument that needs to be won in running code and accessible design, not just on paper.
The truth is that you can now deliver new public services quicker than it takes to have all the meetings needed to talk about the problems they might solve. Sticking to the traditional tools of a big organisation will draw you into a tussle that pans out according to pre-internet bureaucratic rules: the team that writes the best papers wins the day. That doesn’t always equate to them being the most qualified to get something done.
For smart people working in complex places, there’s something slightly unnerving about going headfirst into the messy business of putting new services in front of real people. Even scarier is the prospect of challenging some of your existing processes, culture and business practices. It’s all too easy to imagine the things that might go wrong.
As a manager, being able to spot the flaws tends to be what you’re incentivised to do. And if you’re a public policy wonk or senior executive, all your instincts about something as radical-sounding as ‘transformation’ point to beginning with a calm, comprehensive analysis of the problem. Having properly defined the territory, time can then be spent discussing options, managing stakeholders, and developing a theory of organisational change.
Public sector organisations tend to be excellent at this process of framing problems and developing imaginative solutions to them that work beautifully on the page. That thoughtfulness is an asset. Making change happen requires the ability to tell a good story, be credible, and having robust evidence to support strategic arguments.
Unfortunately, most organisation’s attempts at leading digital transformation grind to a halt very soon after this point. New ideas – however good – are cheap. In most large organisations, there is a competitive marketplace for strategies, with departments and leaders pulling in all kinds of different directions. In governments local and national, this tug-of-war is even harder, without the bottom line of profitability around to reliably drag everyone down roughly the same path.
When it comes to digital transformation, the problems that organisations need to solve are usually difficult to miss. The costs of IT are spiralling, while the quality of service seems to be falling. Decision making is painfully slow. Hiring and keeping new talent is proving near-impossible. Your employees are fed up, your users even more so. What needs to be done is clear. Writing papers that dissect, classify and categorise all these problems can feel like productive work. Management consultants and policy colleagues will queue up to support you in this endeavour. But to show real digital leadership, you need to do something different.
Strategy documents, training courses and policy frameworks can change the weather. But those gains are often fragile, and quickly swept away by the latest gust of ‘innovation’ hot air.
In our recently published book, Digital Transformation at Scale, co-authored with Mike Bracken and Andrew Greenway we have argued that the strategy is delivery. Winning your arguments through delivering – live digital services, audited savings and new talent – is what will shift an organisation’s climate for good.