What I mean when I say ‘digital transformation’

Dafydd Vaughan on 18 October 2016

Digital transformation is a phrase that gets thrown about a lot in government circles at the moment.

It means different things to different people. This makes it impossible for people to really understand what you mean when you say it.

I’m not the first to write something about this. Simon recently wrote about how the phrase is misused. Matt has also written good things.

After many conversations and much frustration, I wanted to write down what it means to me.

Digital paper

To some people, ‘digital transformation’ is all about digitising paper, or improving a bit of process using technology. It may involve reorganisation of teams or introducing a new supplier.

It probably involves one of the large consultancies who’ve been brought in to ‘improve’ a perceived area of not-good.

When I’ve talked to civil servants about ‘transformation’ they often talk about expensive consultants who only stay around for a few months, don’t understand the problem and either leave having achieved nothing or having made it worse.

Similarly, you also hear about expensive consultants who stay around forever and still don’t achieve anything.

People often think that ‘transformation’ is a thing that happens and then finishes. It has a done state. You get to a point and don’t have to do anything else. Until the next transformation programme comes along.

To me, many of these things are just wrong.

Start with user needs

Digital transformation is about a fundamentally different way of thinking.

It’s about designing services from the ground up, based around the needs of the users of the service.

It’s about doing user research to find out what users are trying to achieve. It’s about looking at data and analytics to understand what users are doing. It’s about understanding the context of where, how and when people are doing a thing.

It’s about focusing on user’s needs, not the needs of government, ministers or technology.

If legislation doesn’t meet user needs, it must be changed. If policy doesn’t meet user needs, it must be rewritten. If technology doesn’t meet user needs, it must be replaced.

You need to stop thinking about what existed before and start afresh.

In many cases, people don’t have a choice but to use government services. They can’t shop around if the service doesn’t meet their need.

It’s why I use the term ‘user’ and not ‘customer’. Customers have choice. Users don’t.

Doing the hard work to make it simple

Many interactions people have with government involve talking to many different departments and agencies.

Users have to submit information to two or more different bits of government. They have to inform us of changes multiple times. They have to get permission from one bit of government to get another bit to do something.

Designing services around user needs means making those interactions seamless and transparent. Users shouldn’t have to know there are multiple departments involved. They shouldn’t have to understand the structure of government.

Doing this right will need significant changes. Internal policy might need to be changed, legislation might need to be rewritten, legacy technology might need to be replaced, and the structure of the organisations involved might need re-thinking.

It needs to work across existing departmental boundaries. It means existing silos need to be stripped away. It needs bold thinking. It requires bold leadership.

Iterate, then iterate again

Building good services means we need to break away from the cycle of projects and programmes which have a defined end date.

User needs evolve all the time and services need to evolve with them.

Government services should use data, feedback and research to continually look for opportunities to improve the service, the policy and the legislation that sits behind it.

Services should never reach a ‘finished’ state.

Doing all of this is going to need a fundamental change in how government approaches making policy and building services.

It can’t all be done in one big go – a big bang approach. It needs to be broken down, done in pieces. Each step making things better, learning more as you go.

It’s going to take a long time.

Stephen Foreshew-Cain talked about what government might look like in 2030. He said that even after 15 years of change, we still won’t be done, we’ll need to continue to iterate and improve. He’s right.

Digital transformation

To move towards this vision you need to do ALL of these things – reworking policy, legislation, technology, skills, teams and culture and continually iterate and improve.

Government needs to *think* differently.

When I say digital transformation, this is what I mean.

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