Digital transformation and the Digital Service Standard sit at the heart of plans to improve and reduce the cost of UK public services, but the terminology is confusing and implications hard to grasp.

While digital transformation implies technological change, there’s widespread recognition that it’s as much about focusing on customer needs and transforming public services as with new computer systems.

Given the complexity of this area, how does anyone faced with a responsibility to deliver digital transformation come to grips with the key issues and decide where to start?

What’s driving this agenda?

It's hardly a surprise in a time of austerity that the key driver for digital transformation is the need to reduce the cost of delivering public services. And while cost reduction isn’t front and centre in the digital service standards of the UK and Scotland, there remains an expectation to reduce costs.

What the standards do make clear is the need to identify performance indicators for any new service, of which four are pre-defined and mandatory. Unsurprisingly, the first of these focuses on cost:

  1. Cost per transaction - how much it costs the government each time someone completes the task your service provides
  2. User satisfaction - the percentage of users satisfied with their service experience
  3. Completion rate - the percentage of transactions users successfully complete
  4. Digital take-up - the percentage of users choosing your digital service over non-digital channels.

Getting from A to B: what does the roadmap look like?

To clarify digital transformation, the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS) and the Scottish Government’s Digital Transformation Service (DTS) have published the Digital Service Standard and Digital First Service Standard respectively. These should be used as checklists for anyone carrying out digital transformation.

However, the Standards’ criteria are sufficiently numerous that it’s hard to know where to start. The DSS has 18 separate criteria, the first five of which are:

  1. Understand user needs
  2. Put a plan in place for ongoing user research
  3. Put in place a sustainable multi-disciplinary team that can design, build and operate the service
  4. Build the service using agile, iterative and user-centred methods
  5. Build a service that can be iterated and improved upon on a frequent basis.

These are important considerations and encompass a huge wealth of knowledge that must lie behind successful digital transformation. For many this could seem overwhelming and all-encompassing.

A good place to start is to ask two questions:

  1. Do we really understand how the current service works?
  2. Do we have a vision of what the future service should be like?

The questions are simple but the answers more difficult.

Embracing the impact of current performance

It may seem counter-intuitive to look at the existing service. But many public services have existed for a long time, their underlying processes and systems having been built up over time, without any formal central documentation. In some cases, a process description may be out of date, but only the people who carry out the existing process realise this. In other cases, computer systems may have been delivered that failed to meet requirements, with manual processes introduced to compensate, without any widespread recognition. To duplicate any of these formally defined systems would duplicate a system that doesn't work.

It’s far too easy to underestimate or misunderstand an existing service, or attempt to reproduce a system that doesn't work. Across pockets of the public sector, there are lots of good, tried and tested approaches to understanding existing services. Thought provoking starting points to this approach include:

  1. Freedom from Command & Control and Systems Thinking in the Public Sector, both by John Seddon. The underlying principles of systems thinking are not unique to this author, but he's provocative and the read is both interesting and applicable to the UK public sector
  2. Transform: A rebel's guide for digital transformation by Gerry McGovern. Gerry is an endless source of the kind of common sense that isn't common in practice.

Ultimately, mapping services properly has become a specialised skill, part of the remit of User Experience (UX) designers. Sometimes mistaken for user interface designers who have a quite different skill base, UX designers are trained to map out and understand services from a user perspective, as well as find ways to redesign those services to make them more effective.

A vision of the future

In the new world of Agile management and software design, it may seem that a clear picture of how a service works is all you need to get started on building something new. The Agile ideas of making small, incremental changes that always deliver a working system, and the repeatedly emphasised ability to adapt to rapid change seem both to remove the need and the value of creating long term plans. This is a common misunderstanding of Agile.

Agile management techniques haven’t changed the long understood importance of having a clear vision of the future. While Agile does enable work to start very quickly, without a long term vision this is a very bad way to start. It can lead to a false sense of productivity in an organisation that’s pressured to deliver results but unclear about its strategy.

Agile techniques focus on delivering quick results towards a long term goal. The agility enables the process to carry on effectively as the long term goals change; it does not provide a way of delivering effective results without a long term goal.

Digital transformation is crucially hinged around leadership and a vision of the end goal. The innovative and technical skills needed to provide this may be quite different from those required in the day-to-day management of existing services. This may be relatively rare in organisations that have placed an emphasis on the maintenance and stability of existing services.

There are many current initiatives in public sector organisations to hire and rapidly promote managers with these critical skills, but their value will not necessarily be realised immediately. In the meantime, the need to work with agencies to bootstrap transformation projects with the required Agile management and technical architecture skills will continue. Experienced skills in these areas are vital at the beginning of transformation projects to avoid common pitfalls, reduce risks and costs, and establish confidence in the vision.

Navigating common pitfalls

Every digital transformation project is different, but there are many common issues and misconceptions.

1. Combined customer services are not the same as combined computer systems

The drive to reduce costs and deliver better and more customer focused services has led to a lot of discussion around delivering combined services. This may result in structural combining or collaboration between previously distinct service providers. Efficiencies of scale may be sought from structural integration or operational efficiencies may be anticipated from removing or simplifying duplicated processes and paperwork.

It’s often assumed that combining services will also mean combining the back end computer systems that support those services. The correct recognition that data duplication is usually a bad thing may lead to an expectation that a better system is one that brings all the data together in one place.

It turns out that contrary to former practice, modern back end system designs no longer enforce or rely upon centralising data. Indeed there are often strong arguments for system architectures that split large systems into smaller, more manageable systems that are designed to talk to each other. These systems spread risk, and can be more resilient to service failure, easier to maintain, and more readily scaled to address some of the massive loads demanded of services that address large proportions of the UK population.

In contrast, large combined systems can become exceptionally expensive to develop and maintain. Rather than facilitating agile service change, they can become the greatest barrier to change. If existing systems are already difficult to manage, combining them will only multiply the difficulties.

2. Well intended governance may increase risk

Good, Agile processes are designed to minimise risk by breaking work down into deliverables within short time frames. If anything goes wrong, the end result is very quickly visible and the consequences of scrapping or reworking are low. These practices work best when they are built on multi-disciplinary teams, empowered to make the decisions needed to progress the work.

Well governed public services often introduce boards of advisors that meet infrequently to provide strategic oversight. These practices are intended to reduce the risk of bad decisions going unnoticed. If strategic governance is considered critical to the kinds of decisions being made by an Agile team, then situations can arise where Agile teams are not fully empowered to make critical decisions, or the work is only very infrequently assessed. Both of these circumstances remove the risk-avoiding benefits of Agile practice.

3. Digital transformation is ongoing

The fifth criteria of both the GDS and DTS states:

"Build a service that can be iterated and improved upon on a frequent basis, and make sure that you have the capacity, resources and technical flexibility to do so."

Despite this clear message, it’s still commonplace to look upon digital transformation as a project that can be outsourced to a large IT consultancy. Indeed there are still situations where aspects of these 'projects' are considered sufficiently large and complex that they can’t be carried out in any other way. But no public sector IT system should be so large and complex that only a handful of the world's largest consultancies are capable of delivering the product and handling the risk.

Cloud computing and Big Data technologies have transformed the nature of large IT systems. In the past, there were only a few companies that understood and could manage the computing elements required to run large IT systems. But it’s now possible to design and develop systems that can manage the high frequency demands of the entire UK population on a laptop computer, and then deploy that software, at scale, to meet any level of fluctuating demand.

Modern digital systems need to be manageable and flexible enough to be able to change rapidly to social and political changes. Digital transformation is about re-equipping the public sector with the skills and technologies that enable it to provide secure and reliable services, despite those changes. To find out how to go about achieving this and building the right team, check out my previous blog post, Digital Transformation in Partnership here.