Key to digital service transformation: Leadership

December 8, 2015

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Earlier this year I wrote about two of the ingredients for digital success that must become part of the DNA of government: putting user needs first and changing by doing.

But if we’re to close the gap between the expectations of citizens and the reality of the digital service experience that they get from government, there’s a third. We must get the right, empowered leadership in place. Without it, the first two are just ideas.

Yvonne Gallagher, the UK National Audit Office’s Director of Digital Value for Money, observed recently that “the main challenge in creating new digital models is with the business leadership and capacity and capability in government.”

“Our job is to serve the public and we’re failing,” said Australia’s Digital Chief Paul Shetler recently. “If Amazon did that, they’d go out of business.”

Two decades on from Amazon’s launch in 1995, digital disruption is hardly new or surprising. And yet PwC’s 2015 Global Digital IQ Survey found that while there’s now plenty of talk about digital disruption, there’s still a corresponding lack of action. It seems that executives are not putting their money where their mouths are.

Talk is cheap. But while funding can be a challenge, it’s just one of many excuses that executives hide behind when it comes to tackling digital transformation. In most cases, digital public services can be delivered at a fraction of the cost of their analogue equivalents. Action requires leadership. And that’s why wherever you see government taking steps to put user needs first and starting to change by doing, there’s a leadership story to tell.

Tom Loosemore, one of the best minds working in digital government today, gave an inspiring talk at the 2015 Code for America Summit on how transforming our public services is about more than rethinking how government should present itself on the Internet, pointing out that “transformed digital services require transformed digital institutions." This is about being bold enough to institutionally reinvent our public service to be of the Internet.

Even in those countries that have made real progress the need for such a radical reinvention is yet to be fully understood. As Tom says, “it will require bold, brave, reforming leadership from the centre; leadership with the conviction, commitment and authority required to successfully challenge the shape, the size and the dominant culture of [the public service].”

But what do we mean by digital leadership in government? Is this about Ministers? The board room or executive team? Are we referring to new skills for existing leaders? Or new leaders who come armed with digital skills acquired elsewhere? Does it mean bringing in digital specialists? Mainstreaming digital capability through the wider public service? The simple answer is yes, in one way or another, to all of the above.

Resetting every level of government to put user needs first, deliver smaller, deliver faster and deliver often requires real culture change. In turn, that presents a real leadership challenge. And since culture flows from the top, if we truly want to transform government, that’s where we start.

Back in 2010 I presented the idea of a "digital first" approach to some key groups inside the UK’s Ministry of Justice (MOJ). The feedback was negative. I was "naive." It was "never going to happen." I went ahead and pitched the MOJ board on the fact that we needed one of them to grip digital. They weren't enthused.

I’ve always found inspiration in the story of Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks. Schultz was told "no" by 217 of the 242 investors he pitched to when raising funds to expand Il Giornale, the coffee chain that later became Starbucks. Most of us would have given up by the fourth or fifth "no." Today there are more than 21,000 Starbucks stores in 65 countries and the company is valued at $77 billion. Whatever you feel about Starbucks, it is what it is today because of Schultz’s vision, belief and leadership.

It took several attempts to sell the MOJ board on the digital opportunity. With the promise of services that would be so good that users would prefer them, more efficient ways of working, big savings, and more engaged employees, they finally embraced the leadership ask.

So in 2011 we were one of the first Ministries to put board-level digital sponsorship in place. This showed staff and users that we really meant business. In the 15 months that followed I was able to make dramatic progress. We went from no digital strategy to a published strategy endorsed by the Secretary of State. No digital capability to an 85-strong digital services department. We initiated a program of digital service transformation with four exemplar services being redesigned to meet user, not Ministry need. Using these exemplars we started to change the way the Ministry worked, tackling the governance, the operating model, digital skills and transforming the legacy IT organization along the way.

By 2013 one of those who had sneered at the naivety of a "digital first" approach was working as my deputy, and had become one of the most effective digital change agents in the Ministry.

“That sounds great,” you might say, “but I don’t have that buy-in.” Maybe not, but someone has to get leadership on board. Doing so is an act of leadership in itself.

In fact, many UK government departments that failed to appoint a board level digital leader are still playing catch-up today. If you don’t have that visible commitment at the top, your priority is to get it in place. Enlist help from others inside and outside government to make the case. In 2012 officials took Francis Maude, the UK Cabinet Minister responsible for digital, to Silicon Valley to see just how effective a user-centred, agile, iterative approach to digital service delivery could be. In recent months both the Government of Saskatchewan and Province of BC have come to FCV for our advice on the digital leadership and capability challenge.

Digital has (or should have) an impact on practically every area of government today. It’s not just a part of your service; it’s indivisible from your service. So it stands to reason that digital needs to permeate leadership at all levels. Introducing digital leadership in the right places can help bridge organizational silos and ensure that the interests of users don’t get lost in between.

At board level a Chief Digital Officer will complement the mandates of the other senior executives, uniting them around the citizen experience. At operational level a Digital Service Manager will provide clear leadership for an end-to-end digital service through the full lifecycle, influencing everything from policy to legislation to business process.

Even in the UK, the leadership challenge is still real. “We still see a traditional leadership that lacks real engagement with the digital agenda,” says Gallagher.

Not a charge that can be levelled at Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s former Minister for Communications who unseated Tony Abbott to become Prime Minister in September. Turnbull has been described as a "switched-on, modern leader" who “absolutely gets” the challenges facing Australia’s economy in the 21st century. It was Turnbull who earlier this year created Australia’s Digital Transformation Office, and hired American Paul Shetler, my successor at the MOJ, to run it.

This kind of digital leadership could prove decisive in the years to come. It’ll be the nations that are bold enough to reinvent their public services and institutions for the digital age that will win big. Their citizens will enjoy better, more efficient and more empathetic services. Their politicians will be able to see if policy is working as intended within weeks not years. Their economies will be more competitive and innovative. Ultimately, and perhaps most importantly, all this will lead to greater trust between their citizens and government that will strengthen democracy in ways yet unimagined.

The scale of the change is daunting. Scary even. It’s time for digital leaders to stand-up and be counted. Your government needs you.


Roger is Senior Director, Strategy & Transformation at FCV Interactive, and former Chief Digital Officer for the 85,000 strong UK Ministry of Justice. This is the third article in a series about digital transformation. Read the first article, Putting citizens first: Why is it so hard? And the second article, Changing by doing.

Main image credit: ERNACT
This article was originally published in Canadian Government Executive: Vol. 21 Issue 9, November 2015 

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