Public Services > Central Government

Janet Hughes sets out stall on what a digital organisation looks like

David Bicknell Published 07 June 2017

Former Verify lead says there is plenty of advice on what a good digital service looks like, but less on how to turn your whole organisation digital; describes a 'digital superhero' as "a single point of failure"


The Government Digital Service's (GDS) former programme director for the Verify identity assurance scheme, Janet Hughes, has laid out her vision of what a digital organisation looks like.

Hughes, whose blog about boldness in the civil service has been regularly cited and acclaimed, said in her blog on Medium that there has been a lot of work to define what a good digital service looks like, but added that it is less obvious what to do if you want to make your whole organisation digital, with even fewer success stories to model yourself on.

According to Hughes, this lack of clarity “breeds indecision, risk aversion and a lack of confidence, which results in poor leadership and bad outcomes for users and sometimes also for society in general. Even when organisations want to become digital, it’s hard to know where to start,” she says. 

Discussing ‘digital’, Hughes suggested that is ”something you are, not something you do.” She went on, “Digital isn’t a list of things to do. It’s about how you think, how you behave, what you value, and what drives decisions in your organisation. Or, to put it another way, it’s about “applying the culture, practices, processes and  technologies of the Internet-era to respond to people’s raised expectations.”

Nor,  Hughes says, is digital just about organisations that deliver primarily digital products and services. “A digital organisation is one that can operate effectively in our digital age? - which means leaders in all organisations and from all sectors need a basic level of digital competence, curiosity and confidence.”

And no single individual can make you digital either. “Becoming a digital organisation is not just about recruiting a digital superhero as your chief digital officer and hoping that will do. Organisations that try this tend to follow a common cycle of failure,” says Hughes.

“A superhero is a single point of failure, especially if nobody else understands what they are doing. And it’s much easier (and safer) to assign blame to one person instead of a series of interconnected issues. You wouldn’t dream of leaving all considerations about money to the finance director, asking no questions and not wanting to consider options before making decisions. So why do that with digital technology?”

Hughes argues that in order to avoid this cycle, the whole leadership team needs to take responsibility for making changes to the organisation’s structure, culture and working practices. It also helps to have other mitigating circumstances, for example a burning platform that forces radical change or a very senior sponsor with a strong mandate and will.”

Going further, Hughes argues that digital organisations are responsive, open and efficient. “Digital organisations are able to both understand and respond to people’s rapidly changing needs, habits and expectations. That’s a different thing than, say, having a customer insight team. A lot of organisations think they understand their users, but in many cases they aren’t set up to respond to this understanding in an effective way,” Hughes suggests.

That is because:

  • even if one part of the organisation knows what’s needed, they can’t get everyone else’s attention (digital marketing teams often find themselves in this position)
  • evidence isn’t understood or valued in the organisation, with preference given to long-held but untested beliefs instead
  • people can’t extract, work with or act on data and insight in a timely way because of slow and inadequate technology and ways of working
  • it’s hard to make quick, effective decisions at the right time and at the right level in the organisation because of excessive or inappropriate bureaucratic and technological controls (ignoring the fact that creative, curious people are going to use their own devices and accounts to do what they want regardless, completely outside the organisation’s control)

Responsive organisations, she argues, have empowered, multidisciplinary teams who have access to relevant, real-time data about the changing environment and are empowered and equipped to respond.

On openness, Hughes says, in order to be fully responsive, your whole workforce needs to work in an open way, both collectively and as individuals. You can’t be open if you only act as a single, monolithic, internal-facing entity.

And on efficiency, she argues that being digital doesn’t add cost. In fact, done well, it should reduce cost, reduce risk and make you more efficient and resilient.

“It’s not just about making your existing processes cheaper by moving them online. Also, there’s a limit to how many savings you can gain from that. Taking a digital approach often means completely redesigning the way a business works,” Hughes says. She suggests that digital organisations are more efficient when they:

  • have a clear strategy and goals so that teams can make consistent, effective decisions without having to escalate things for senior attention
  • have a free, fast flow of information within and between teams?—?operating as a network rather than a hierarchy
  • use flexible governance methods and ways of working that support rapid experimentation, learning and iteration
  • give people trust and responsibility to fix things that they can see are broken
  • see the internet as a non-optional and intrinsic part of the organisation, its products and services, rather than as a separate channel

Hughes argues there are five aspects of a digital organisation that really all need to be in place to stand a chance of achieving success. They are: environment - understanding what changes are taking place; users?—?putting them at the heart of your organisation; workforce? - empowered, equipped and organised to work digitally; leadership? - bold, open, and curious; and tech, data and processes? - ?flexible, to serve your organisation’s goals.

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