People and processesChange ManagementNine key digital government messages public sector leaders should understand

Nine key digital government messages public sector leaders should understand

Eddie Copeland, Director of Government Innovation at Nesta, outlines the key messages that he feels all leadership teams should understand about the enabling role of digital

Nine key digital government messages public sector leaders should understandLast month, Eddie Copeland, Director of Government Innovation at Nesta, published a slide pack that outlined nine key digital government messages that public sector leaders should understand. The idea was to create an overview for public sector leadership teams on what digital government is, how it’s often (mis)interpreted, and how they can think about the role that digital technologies might play in their own organisations.

From the document – which is well worth a read and can be viewed in full here – Eddie extracted nine key messages that he feels all leadership teams should understand about the enabling role of digital. They are:

#1: Technology should be an enabler, not the driver of public sector innovation.

#2: The most exciting development is NOT that any specific technology has reached maturity, but that we can broadly take for granted that technology can do whatever we want it to do.

#3: We’ve seen exponential levels of innovation in the technologies available to the public sector, but almost no innovation in the structures and processes to which they are applied.

#4: You will achieve more if you have operational excellence and very basic technology than the most advanced technology and a bad process.

#5: If you’re optimising an existing function, look at how digital tools can improve the entire end-to-end process, rather than bolting on a nicer front face to an old way of working.

#6: The level of transformation that digital technologies can enable is primarily down to how much of the process or way of working you are willing to change.

#7: Organisations cannot expect agile projects to succeed if they insist on keeping older forms of project management, governance, budgeting and procurement.

#8: Public sector technology teams should focus on being smart and demanding customers to the best innovations that market can provide, and set clear standards for the tech they will buy or develop.

#9: Responsibility for creating the environment in which digitally enabled projects can thrive sit squarely with leadership teams.

When asked why he felt the need to pull together his thoughts and make them public, Eddie answers: “I’ve been looking at digital government and digital public service reform for five years. Plus, we get a lot of approaches at Nesta from governments and local authorities asking for advice, so I thought I would condense the number of reports I’ve written into something shorter and snappier.

“I also decided to put something together out of continued frustration at the way many conversations about digital government seem to take the label too literally, and focus first and foremost on the technology. The risk is that organisations end up bolting on new technologies to their same old ways of working, rather than reframing the conversation and asking: how do we want to work? What is the change we’re trying to enable? What is it that we want to do? Once creative thought and energy has really been put into the operating model of a service, we can then have a sensible conversation about the appropriate technology.”

Given that approach makes sense, why does Eddie think the ‘old school’ approach is still so prevalent?

“I think, in part, the tech industry and public sector officials end up talking past each other. A lot of great ideas and innovation come from the tech industry but often their mindset and goal is to talk about the tech. They don’t necessarily have the deepest knowledge of the real public sector needs. Likewise, the people in the public sector who could most benefit from what new technology can do are often least equipped to know what questions to ask. As a result, when we talk about digital transformation, there’s a tendency in some public sector organisations to say ‘this is clearly digital or technology so we’ll let the digital or IT team lead discussions’. This means we end up with service managers, leadership teams and frontline staff feeling like it’s not their experience and expertise that matter; they’re not meant to be driving discussions. It’s therefore all too easy to revert back to the ‘technology first’ status quo.”

Legacy IT

Eddie continues to explain that Legacy IT can also hold back true digital transformation from a mindset perspective as well as a practical IT level.

“The challenge for the public sector is that over many years, these separate organisations – 400 plus in local government alone – have independently bought, designed, commissioned or built their own IT. The result is all of them are starting with a unique IT architecture, which makes moving to common ways of working and more collaboration difficult.

Many public sector organisations have also had an unfortunate habit of thinking they need bespoke IT to meet their needs. Because they’re now starting with these bespoke legacy systems it’s difficult to plug in new, off the shelf solutions that we all use in our day to day lives and which plummet in price. We’re stuck instead with the need to build expensive, bespoke plug-ins.”

“When we talk about ideas like Government as a platform, that only meaningfully works if all of the component blocks can be chopped and changed. For example, if you don’t like the booking engine, there needs to be the option to swap it out and replace it with another that works to the same standards. We don’t want to ‘build once’ and then be stuck with it forever. That will kill innovation, not promote it.”

Exiting this cycle is clearly a priority for the public sector and Eddie suggests one way to make this achievable is to find service areas where organisations want to conform to common technical standards.

“I think this is particularly true in complex service areas such as adult social care, where we need organisations to work more effectively together. It’s important that new technologies adopted are based on common standards so that data can be shared more easily and systems can be plugged in effectively. If enough organisations can agree on some common standards, we can encourage the IT sector to respond by creating a create range of useful products that conform to them.”


In his document, Eddie often discusses the need for collaboration – is this something he thinks there’s an appetite for? Or are people happy working in their silos?

“A lot of the public sector organisations we talk to are very interested in collaboration and I think they recognise, particularly in local government where budget cuts have hit hardest, that collaboration is the only option. There is no plan B.

“Beyond that, I think there’s a very clear recognition that when services are not joined up it’s deeply frustrating for citizens. Organisations that care about offering a good service and treating people well, which is the clear majority, recognise that you need co-ordination. Thinking about adult social care again, you can have up to 30 separate organisations supporting one individual or family. If you don’t have collaboration how on earth is that supposed to work effectively?”

Tech for good

Continuing the theme of collaboration, in his slides Eddie mentions the potential of tech for good – something he believes has huge potential for the public sector.

“A key message of Nesta’s government innovation work is that government and public sector organisation don’t have to tackle every issue alone. From a technology angle, there are some amazing third sector organisations that are using technology in innovative ways to address local problems.

“We have a platform, that showcases the work of around 2,000 organisations working in this way. The public sector can actively support them through signposting, providing resources and connecting them with other organisations. The more we look at involving the wider community, the more sustainable our solutions to our biggest problems will be.”

Listening to Eddie and reading through his ideas, it appears that much of what he is suggesting comes down to leadership.

“The way I put it to leadership teams is that it would no longer be acceptable for somebody managing a big budget for a department to say ’I’m just not that good with figures!’. Similarly, if public sector leaders want their organisations to be truly digitally enabled, they can’t just leave it to their IT teams. They need to understand the role that technology can play and be comfortable talking about it. Success starts at the top, because we know that effective digital change requires some form of organisational shift.

“For example, most successful digital project these days adopt an agile method of design and delivery – they don’t set out with a fully defined idea of what will be built. It’s hard for teams to work in that way if their organisations still insist on more traditional forms of project reporting, governance and budgeting. Leadership teams need to put in place the appropriate structures for digital projects to thrive.

“Digital teams can help enable with technology, but the conversation is still about how those organisations want to work. That’s a leadership team’s responsibility and it can’t be delegated.”

Starting points

Given the above, where does Eddie think public sector organisations should start when improving digital service delivery?

“From a digital team point of view, I would strongly recommend that they focus on their real raison d’etre, which is to be smart and demanding customers of the best innovation in the market,” he says. “As opposed to starting with the assumption that they need to build something bespoke to fit their needs. That’s sometimes the case, but mostly, if they are demanding the best innovation it’ll stand them in good stead.”

Eddie concludes by saying: “Broadly speaking, the only way we can get out of this loop of bespoke IT leading to more bespoke is to sit down as a sector, discuss these complex service delivery areas and agree where should we define some common standards and, crucially, commit to adopting them over five to 10 years. That would help give the market the confidence that if they build the products that conform to them, they will be used. If we don’t agree common standards we’re making it incredibly hard for digital to achieve its full potential.”

Eddie would welcome feedback on his draft overview (Google slides), which he will turn into a more comprehensive guide in due course. To comment, head to the document itself or Twitter.

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