In just a few weeks, the UK's Government Digital Service (GDS) has lost its head, its deputy, its strategy man, its chief designer, its head of user research and its delivery and performance chief.

There seems to be a mix of messages coming out of Whitehall - some talk about the plan always being to devolve the central GDS team into newly-prepared departments (a question of tackling transformation at the correct scale) and others seem to suggest a November spending review is curtailing a GDS that is losing an argument with some of its vocal critics.

I don't know anything about the machinations of governments but in a broader context it's pertinent to remind ourselves that momentum doesn't always gather behind transformation projects.

Even with the sharpest practitioners and most passionate evangelists, a digital transformation project will perhaps always take two steps forward and then one back.

Changing culture and process is hard

Reading a recent GDS blog post, 'How to be agile in a non-agile environment', it would be easy to imagine a group of frustrated employees trying to rationally work their way past internal opposition.

In fact, this is how transformation ever was.

As Adam Maddison writes in the post:

Transformation is as much about changing processes and culture as it is about digital services, and processes and culture are much more deeply ingrained. Changing stuff like that is hard.

Changing stuff like that might just be a generation's work.

A recent Government report by the former HR director of Tesco described the top of the civil service in less than glowing terms, but parallels can likely be drawn with the C-suite and above in large companies.

I'm sure readers involved in transformation projects will recognise The Independent's summary of part of this report, as it has echoes in any org structure that is adapting to digital on a large scale:

...senior officials were resistant to change, cared more about process than results and presided over an unnecessarily hierarchical structure.

It was at this point in my background reading about the current climate of GDS that I started to think of 1960s society and the generation gap.

I wonder if such a gap is evident in workforces today, seen more acutely in time-honoured processes of Government?

Or perhaps resistance within a big organisation is inevitable, and a sign of burgeoning success?

Maybe, by the time Barry's Houses of Parliament are vacated for more modern digs, the battle for digital transformation will be won.

It's easier than the boss thinks, to lose staff

If there's any point to me writing this, it's as a generic reminder of the importance of good sponsorship.

Talented individuals will always want to work in the most exciting environments and are prepared for some level of discomfort in the pursuit of job satisfaction.

This might mean long hours, lower pay, fewer perks etc. What's harder for many is continued obstruction to ways of working - a hierarchy that 'doesn't get it'.

There are rumours the Government is now worried about meeting some of its promised savings, without GDS' work continuing apace (with appropriate funding).

If true, and it's hard to tell given this salutary post from the new Minister for the Cabinet Office, this is symptomatic of sponsorship that simultaneously demands a lot but gives little in return.

To that end, a good sponsor needs to:

  • Allow failure. Yes, a number of the GDS projects are behind schedule but to citizens used to the old hotch potch of Government websites, this seems like an acceptable inevitability. We all know the adage of project management, you can't have timely, successful projects within budget.
  • Show loyalty. If the momentum of a project is to be continued, those in charge need to make the right noises. In the same way that Alex Ferguson used to protect his players (sorry for the cod analogy), a sponsor needs to project the best bits of a project to the outside world, whilst maintaining perspicacity on the inside.
  • Protect the talent at all costs. With digital chops in demand, it's more important than ever to keep a good team together.

Indeed, if GDS does cede some power to departments, creating a good team is likely to leave a lasting legacy.

This post from Mike Bracken in July 2015, details exactly how aggressively senior digital figures have been recruited to the Government (over 120 of them) alongside service managers and an intake of 'fast streamers' on a three year programme.

Bracken's post is titled 'Hire the head and the body will follow'. Pushing people who 'get it' high enough up the tree is vital for all organisations.

Ben Davis

Published 15 October, 2015 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is Editor at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester, England. You can contact him at ben.davis@econsultancy.com, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (2)

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CINO at Fresh Relevance

The Peter Principle is "managers rise to the level of their incompetence."
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_principle

But I long ago realised this needs varying for IT:
"techies rise until their *manager* reaches the level of their incompetence."

Presumably this happened here and the person or people in ultimate charge are incompetent, so staff had to leave.

The solution for techies btw is to choose a job with no manager and start your own business.

over 2 years ago

Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Editor at EconsultancyStaff

Good news this week. £450m to GDS in the spending review. Described as unexpected, but definitely welcomed. See http://www.theguardian.com/public-leaders-network/2015/nov/25/central-government-spending-review-whitehall-cuts

about 2 years ago

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