Government needs to address the digital deliverability of policy post-election

Written by Clayton Smith, Managing director, Zaizi - formerly, deputy director, digital delivery at the Cabinet Office

Political parties have fought much of the election campaign on the potential of their policies to improve lives.

Post-election there is a critical factor that will be pivotal in determining the outcome of these proposals: the digital deliverability of each policy the winning party has promised to implement.

Digital deliverability is critical because data and digital infrastructure form the backbone of government operations. The products and services supported by the Government Digital Service are used by 13 million people weekly and involve 1,900 public sector organisations.

If the government is serious about policy delivery it must understand the extent to which its policies are digitally deliverable in this context. 

During my time in the civil service, I saw many great ideas designed to improve services, save money and create better government experiences. Unfortunately, I also witnessed several occasions when these efforts were hampered by a lack of consideration of the organisational and technical barriers that would need to be overcome .

The consequences of this are severe, including wasted public money, erosion of the public’s trust in government and a negative impact on people’s lives when policies are poorly implemented or not implemented at all.

We will need a significant change in how government teams think and collaborate with each other if we are to address these problems


 Better collaboration on policy design is key

Failures to implement digital-ready policy initiatives in the UK often stem from a lack of early collaboration between leadership and policy teams. And also with other key stakeholders including end users, frontline staff and the digital teams responsible for creating and maintaining the necessary products and services.

In other countries, it’s different. In Denmark, for instance, new legislation presented before parliament must include an impact assessment of its digital consequences. The UK should adopt a similar approach by fostering closer collaboration between policymakers and digital design experts early in the process. Combining data, user research and digital skills can create user-centric, digital-ready policies aligned with GDS and Agile principles.

The benefits of this approach include rapid advancement of policy thinking through direct citizen engagement and ongoing testing, plus better understanding by policymakers of what is technically feasible. We would also see better alignment of policy with the digital needs of citizens and reduction of errors and risks in the design process.

Immediate, practical measures are needed to advance this alignment and provide direction. For example, focused transformation workshops can unite key stakeholders – including senior managers, digital teams and users.

The goal should be to identify the problems the organisation aims to solve, achieve consensus on desired outcomes and understand constraints and priority areas. Teams can use this as a base on which to rapidly co-design prototypes that will help with faster digital delivery of policy. 

I know this approach works from experience. Workshops conducted within a short time frame accelerate decision-making. Stakeholders become aligned and — through their hands-on involvement — have visibility and ownership of the problem.


Systems thinking is required

In the longer term, we must address substantial accumulated technical debt in legacy systems across government that hinder the delivery of new policy-driven initiatives.  Rather than continuing to talk of digital transformation this will require a shift to ‘systems thinking’ supported by agile delivery that considers all related challenges holistically with an iterative approach rather than a big bang. 

Policy initiatives are inherently complex, involving many legacy technologies, processes, and stakeholders. Systems thinking helps identify unnecessary complexity accumulated over time, allowing organisations to replace convoluted workflows with efficiency, simplicity and user-centric designs. It also deals with complexity by breaking down systems into manageable chunks and understanding their relationships.

 Systems thinking also emphasises the importance of feedback loops to gauge impact over time continually. Driving innovation isn’t just about launching something to fanfare; it’s about constantly monitoring and adapting to achieve the desired outcomes.


Change is possible

Digital deliverability must be a key test for policy post-election. By fostering collaboration and embracing systems thinking departments can overcome many of the policy implementation challenges they have faced in recent years.

Partly this will mean leaning into the experience of external partners who can provide not only technical execution but also strategic engagement with leadership and stakeholders. For their part, those consultants must be flexible and responsive to changing requirements and bring specialised expertise to address digital skills gaps and inform senior leaders  This approach will lead to more effective, efficient and trusted government operations. 

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