Public Services > Central Government

Take the right approach to digital transformation and reap the greatest rewards

Published 05 December 2017

Public sector IT projects are too often the victims of rigid organisational cultures and short-term goal-setting, says Harry Metcalfe, managing director of dxw


At a time when people’s needs and expectations of public services have never been higher, public sector finances are under increasing pressure and scrutiny. The Government expects civil servants to do more for less, but this means looking at more than just cosmetic changes to the front-ends of services. Achieving real efficiencies and savings means redesigning services and the back-office end-to-end. This requires investment and time.

Technology is often seen as some kind of saviour in the constant battle for productivity improvements. And indeed, technology can play a central role. But too often it is simply bolted onto existing practices, where it can streamline some processes and create some savings, but is never able to reach its true potential. Transformative change comes not just from new technology, but from challenging and changing the way things get done. Properly understanding and meeting users’ needs is central to this process, as is the support of an informed and empowered leadership.

If digital transformation is to be truly successful it needs sponsorship at a strategically senior level. That’s not always easy to achieve, especially when key roles are separated through two separate forks in organisational structures. The IT team reports into the Finance Director who reports to the CEO. Meanwhile digital teams report into customer services leaders, who in turn report to the CEO. There is no crossover, and sometimes no cooperation, until you get right to the top.

In an attempt to address this sort of problem, many organisations assemble boards or working groups drawn from existing staff, or ask some staff to become ‘digital champions’, or contract with external consultants, or on a mix of these. None of these approaches is ideal.

Working groups draw on the best talent in individual teams, leaving those teams below capacity and often without their star players. Digital champions are often asked to take on new responsibilities in addition to existing roles, which doesn’t really give them enough time to devote to either. Meanwhile consultants, for all their skills, might find it difficult to really get under the skin of the organisation well enough to identify truly transformational projects, and, even if they do this, financial constraints can mean they aren’t around for long enough to see projects through.

In any case, strategies that rely on working groups, digital champions or consultants are often focused on discrete projects and take a linear approach, in which a need is identified and then worked towards. These sorts of approaches, like Target Operating Model, are not compatible with user-led, iterative change. They’re the organisational change equivalent of waterfall software development.

Moreover, linear approaches feed a mindset where periods of change happen, everyone settles into a new normal, then there’s some more change - usually after a new boss arrives. This start-stop cycle never really gets you anywhere because it can’t keep up with the changing environment: regulations, staff changes, technology and policy to name but a few. Its inability to accommodate these challenges leaves organisations vulnerable to the perception that they have merely been tinkered with - at great expense - with little enduring benefit.

This is where strong leadership comes to the fore. For transformation to succeed, there must be effective and informed challenge at the point where financial and operational decisions are taken. Leadership must foster a culture where technical, design and research skillsets are valued and supported across the whole organisation with a remit to unblock difficult areas.

Absolutely core to getting the most from digital transformation is understanding that it is people – and not technology – that matter most. Technology can do pretty much whatever we ask of it. The trick, if we are to really ‘do more with less’, is to learn to think differently about how projects are scoped, developed and delivered.

At dxw, we use technology, user insight and agile principles to help public sector teams deliver services that are recognisably better. For us, digital is about the combination of empathy, technology and creativity. But you probably don’t need any help to get started: in almost every organisation we’ve worked with, we’ve found people champing at the bit to change things for the better. Most of the time, they just need the space and support to make it happen.

Harry Metcalfe is managing director of dxw

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