Ten years ago, the government published a report that would change the way the public sector approached the design and build of digital services. The report took all the best parts from the software industry – user-centred designs, agile approaches, use of open source software – and brought them together into an overall approach.

The most ground-breaking thing about the work was that the recommendations were actually acted upon! Similar reports had been produced going back as far as 1999, but little had changed. Moving the government forward turned out to be the proverbial super-tanker turn that only happened when some real heavyweights got their hands on the wheel. This included the author of the report (Baroness Lane-Fox) and the government minister tasked with delivering it (Sir Francis Maude). This kind of buy-in made all the difference.

Fast-forwarding 10 years, the digital revolution is by no means complete (the test-and-trace fiasco is testament to that), but much progress has been made. I have been a participant in this revolution for the entire decade and from my perspective, two big surprises stand out.

Firstly, despite strong early successes, the government is far from digitally transformed and the GDS, the organisation created to drive the change, seems to have lost momentum lately. Its purpose has become less clear and despite fairly hefty injections of budget, it has not managed to deliver success in, for example, the field of data. Many expected the organisation to lead the UK forward in a similar way as it did with agile and user-centred design.

And secondly, seldom do we see the best ideas from the public sector adopted into the private sector. It’s all there for the taking!

But now the evolutionary pressure is increasing. Entirely new challenges (Covid-19, climate change, a hard Brexit, societal tensions) will require new systems and processes to be delivered.  Most importantly, these factors mean that customer needs and wants are changing, fast and often permanently. Rapid transformation is necessary but brings big risks. It is my belief these risks can be managed with the right approach.

Lead from the front

First, lead from the front.  Establish a “North Star” for the change to give buy-in and direction from the top, preferably all the way to the Chief Exec. But go beyond the visioning and specify that one or several top sponsors should be involved throughout a selection of pilots, user research, design and evaluation. This is the only way top management can “get” the potential and limits of digital and take it back with them to top-level decision making.

Management in UK companies spend far too little time talking to their customers, and building new digital processes is all about that.  When the Office of the Public Guardian moved its cumbersome process for applying for a Lasting Power of Attorney online (with approximately one million applications per annum), even the Chief Exec participated in show-and-tells and became so energised that he recorded a video about the benefits of being agile. This goes far beyond the digital realm into new ways of engaging and understanding your customer.

Put principles into practice

This leads on to the next point: stop talking about “putting the customer in the centre” and actually do it, by adopting User Centric Design principles over relying on “gut feeling”, copying competitors or following the latest fad. Government work has traditionally been very driven by political directives or ministerial whims but that is a poor basis for selecting and designing services.  Accept that your ideas and concepts must be tested with real customers. And not just when a new service is built and launched, but continuously through live operations.  The best services are never done, but constantly updated to align with customers.

Somewhat counter to this, you also need to ensure you involve and empower staff.  Virtually all the government contracts I have been working on now ask me to conduct knowledge transfer and upskilling of internal teams.  When we worked with Department for International Trade, we delivered our work in blended teams and even involved policy teams to ensure the services we designed and built were in tune with the changing landscape around EU Exit.

As our work progressed, the internal team grew more proficient in digital, international trade rules, and the many other aspects that must be taken into account when designing a new service.  As a result, the department is now better armed to deal with the outcome of the negotiations, whatever the flavour of the final agreement is.

The sweet spot of service design

Linked to this is the fact you must find what we call “the sweet spot of service design”.  This is the area in a Venn diagram where the needs of customers, the business and other stakeholders (for example staff) are equally respected. Customer centricity is important but means little if it is not delivered in a profitable and sustainable way. So, when we designed a new case management system to handle, we spent equal time interviewing and mapping the needs and user journey of civil servants tasked with managing the process, as well as reviewing the [department’s] strategic plan for the coming five years.

This may seem obvious, but modern organisations are still plagued with systems rolled out with little testing or forewarning, leading to inefficiencies, loss of morale and lost opportunities for change.  Careful understanding of current internal user journeys can help you avoid that.

Start small with “exemplars”

Finally, avoid monolithic change, usually coming in one of two flavours – “let’s get a single system that can do everything” (it cannot) or “let’s get best-of-breed of everything and make them work flawlessly together” (they won’t). This kind of thinking has led to government departments being held hostage by large system integrators and consultants, paying large premiums for sub-optimal services and expensive change requests.

Instead, follow the new approach of “exemplars” – bite-sized projects that can be delivered quickly to test out new methods, upskill people, gain early proof-of-concepts and successes (ideally increased revenue or efficiency) and, crucially, energise teams and build advocates. The insights from a single exemplar can be used to launch 10 more exemplars that can then scale up to system-wide change. This need not take time.

As an example, one of my customers in the experience/events industry required a new CRM system but were uncertain about the business case and the best way to proceed.  The solution: quick selection of an open source, free to use platform taken into a specific pilot designed to increase on-site shop sales.

An eight-week project immediately led to increased sales (only a few £10,000, but at little cost) and an enthusiastic internal team willing to tell top management what could be done if they had access to the right tools. The traditional approach would have been a massive requirement gathering process, followed by a cumbersome platform selection.  The new approach led to deep insights and a team much better prepared to deal with decision making and change.

These may seem obvious, but I have seen many organisations make these mistakes (and many others!). We can and should learn from the public sector. They are a big business, in some ways the biggest, and by sharing learnings we’ll all grow.

Digital Transformation Monthly – October 2020