What we mean by “digital”

Written by Myra Hunt, Chief Digital Officer at DEFRA

We took over as Defra’s joint Chief Digital Officers back in July. Since then, we’ve spent a lot of time meeting a lot of different people at all levels around the organisation, asking questions and listening.

One thing that’s emerged is that not everyone shares the same understanding of the word “digital”. Many people are very unsure of what we mean when we use it.

Since we’re the ones in charge of “digital” here, we thought we should do something about that – so in this post, we’re going to explain what digital means to us and to Defra.

Digital means changing the way we work

This heading is the simplest, most fundamental definition. Former GDS deputy director Tom Loosemore defined digital like this in a tweet:

Digital: Applying the culture, practices, processes & technologies of the Internet-era to respond to people’s raised expectations.

… and we haven’t seen anyone else define it as simply, or as clearly, since then.

Read his tweet again. He lists 4 things: culture, practices, processes and technologies.

The first 3 of those are about how we do things. About the ways that people work.

Digital transformation means changing those working methods. It means: being more agile; putting users first; starting small and iterating from there, based on user research.

It’s not just computers

The fourth thing in Tom’s list is technologies. Yes, this means we must change how we manage and implement IT, from mission-critical legacy systems to giving our staff access to modern kit and collaboration tools.

Three out of four things on Tom’s list relate to changing how we think, act and behave.

That’s why we like the phrase “digital is about people, not just computers”, something that colleagues at Defra have been saying for some time.

We live in an era of constant change. Rather than trying to predict and prepare for every change that might happen, we need to reshape our organisation so that it’s better equipped to cope with the flow of new challenges and opportunities.

That’s what a digital organisation is: one that can react and respond quickly and effectively to changing needs and opportunities.

Change is hard

We need to make Defra work more like the fast-moving digital organisations that make the rest of the world work. It’s a big challenge, we don’t deny that. It’s not complicated; it’s just hard.

Agile ways of working aren’t new, but they’re relatively new to government. So we need to come up with ways to help existing teams adjust. We need to hire experts who can support those teams. And we need to recognise that some of our existing staff already know what to do, and give them the freedom to do it.

Over the last year, the Digital Transformation programme in Defra has made good progress. Among many other things, we’ve:

  • delivered 2 new services to public beta or live: I want to Fish, and Report Landfill Data (there are more coming soon)
  • taken the Water Licensing service to alpha
  • taken the Waste Permits service to private beta
  • rolled out a new field service management tool to 500+ staff
  • established our own Digital Working team of experts to help other teams make the change

Now that we understand more about the teams and the challenges they face, we’re planning to write a more detailed digital strategy for Defra, which will shape the rest of our digital activity for the next few years.

With that and a clear definition of “digital” to guide us, we believe progress will only accelerate from here on. We can’t wait.


This was originally published here and reposted with permission.

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