The National Audit Office’s recent report on digital transformation was a scary document to pick up. You never know how history (or more importantly the NAO) will judge you. I was relieved to see that they could see the value in the early efforts of GDS, and the exemplar programme in particular. The aim of that work was to prove digital transformation could be done in government. No one had really done it before, and it was Mike Bracken who described it at the time as a bit of moon shot.
With the benefit of hindsight it was not perfect, and we traded deep transformation for demonstrable results. It did, however, manage to break the mould. The future poses greater and more significant challenges though, and I will be watching, and hopefully participating in some capacity, in the next round of transforming the UK’s public services.
It’s been a couple of years since I was in GDS and I was part of that initial disruptive phase. However, even disruption requires some collaboration and the exemplar programme (which I was responsible for) relied a lot on harnessing the abilities of civil servants. By its nature the programme caused friction in some departments, but where we got the collaboration right we were successful. The NAO report picks up on the challenge of working together but maintaining the right accountability. This is a tough nut to crack in government.
A good example of where collaboration is working well is at the Scottish Government. The Digital Director for Scotland, Colin Cook, has a highly collaborative agenda and is making waves.
The team is based in the central government but works across the public sector. It has harnessed a lot of the (now standard) GDS ways of working (discovery, alpha, beta etc.) but is underpinned by an ecosystem approach. You can read more in their strategy here.
Before ecosystem becomes another buzzword, it is essentially joining up the various strands of work and looking for common patterns and services – but – accountable officers still own their services. It is a subtle difference, but from what I can see the more work they do the more it starts to join up. For example, Scotland have got a real handle on common service patterns across justice, social security and licencing. From this they have started to identify common capabilities agencies need to help users. They have also started to look at their data and how it can be shared and consumed. All of this within a common framework (some would say architecture). It is relatively early days and there is still a lot of learning to be done. However, this could be the missing piece of the transformation jigsaw.
This is all underpinned by using mixed teams from the central government unit and other public bodies, agile principles and working in the open. It might be worth the NAO having a chat about what is happening north of the border as they may find some answers there.