Digital, full stop

Earlier this week Policy Exchange published their report Smaller, Better, Faster, Stronger: Remaking government for the digital age. The report argues that the government of 2015-20 – whatever its colour – should do all service delivery online, and that Whitehall needs much better data and digital skills to make this happen. I had the pleasure of working with Policy Exchange on the report, debating ideas and making sure they got what they needed from GDS to understand what we’ve been up to.

Here I will say more about an idea that the report glances at but doesn’t quite land upon. It’s the idea that digital gives us tools and ways of working that are applicable outside building digital products and services. I will start by pulling out that points at which the report’s authors Chris Yiu and Sarah Fink do glance at this idea. I will then look at some of the recommendations, and explore how digital tools and ways of working have been helpful in work I’ve done that isn’t about digital products and services.

[Warning: this post was banned from the GDS blog for being too long and waffle-y. I’ve tidied it up but it is still too long and waffle-y. I wanted it to see the light of day though, so here it is].

Following the breadcrumbs

The report makes it clear that digital is about people not technologies: ‘this is really a story about people, leadership and organisational change’. I couldn’t agree more.

The report goes further than Baroness Lane Fox and GDS’s words ‘digital by default’ to say that government should be ‘digital, full stop’. To take this to its logical conclusion, government won’t even need to say ‘digital by default’ anymore, because government is just digital. There wouldn’t be a Government Digital Strategy, there would just be a Government Strategy.

The report also says that digital will allow us to open up the operations of government, through open data but, more relevant for my work, through open policymaking.

When these three points are put together like this, there is only one conclusion for me – that digital tools and ways of working can reach deep into the operations of government, beyond work that might seem to be digital.

Now I’d like to say something about my experiences of using digital tools and ways of working to do work that isn’t primarily about digital. This is work that is about people who aren’t online, and work that is core policy/governmenty stuff.

Digital -> open

One recommendation of the report is for a civil service directory, so that people can find and talk to policymakers about policy they are interested in. It’s really important to me that my team and I are visible for people to talk to us about our work. But we are using existing channels to do this rather than building a new one. We do this by blogging on the GDS blog, by being on Twitter, by being at relevant events/debates, and by proactively talking to people and organisations who work in our area (getting digital services to people who aren’t online). My view is that the more conversations we have, the better the work gets. The Government Approach to Assisted Digital and the assisted digital market engagement are better for involving people who aren’t in government. We are working on being more present in discussions with people that are offline.

The report argues that government should do more with open data and open policy making. I interpret open policy making as involving the people who are experts in a particular area as much as possible in making policy, or outsourcing policy making to them. The Policy Exchange report itself is a great example of this. The team there are thinking, talking and writing about what could be next for digital government. As a result they prompt us at GDS to think about what could be next, so people like me working in government don’t bury our heads entirely in pressing matters like the digital service transformations.

Digital -> non-digital

In these two examples digital has prompted government to think about openness in digital stuff, or being open in digital ways. To take this a stage further, thinking about openness should then make us think about being open for things that are not digital.

We are starting to do this at GDS. My team and I are doing open policy making on assisted digital by commissioning the Helen Hamlyn Centre to develop and test prototype assisted digital services. Digital has prompted us to think about openness, and we have reflected this back on the subject matter of people who are not digital.

Iterating in digital -> iterating in everything

Reaching deeper into the ways we work, the report argues that government should apply ‘lean start-up methodology’, using data to iteratively refine services and products. I think we should also apply it to the everyday working we do in the Civil Service, whether we are working on services or products or other things.

For example, in the assisted digital team we do alphas and betas of things that you might not think of as products, like departmental requirements for market for assisted digital services. We developed a prototype within our team, worked on it with colleagues in other departments, discussed it with our departmental programme board, and now we are refining it further. Last week I wrote a minimum viable product submission to our Ministers, took views on the main points, structure and evidence, then refined it.

This may sound just like silly new words for drafts or outlines but is different is that we make a fully working – though early stage – product, then refine it. When I do a draft, I just end up with a meticulously structured introduction and a lot of gaps on the hard topics, though maybe that’s just me… This way I have to have the discipline of tackling the hard stuff first. The result is a better product, or at least getting to the end product more efficiently.

It also demands a better quality of attention from the people who you share things with. They aren’t getting a draft, they are getting a first-cut product. A subtle but I think important difference.

Ramble -> summary

At this point I should have a rousing conclusion but hey, I did warn you that this was long and waffle-y. The best I can do is to say that in summary, I think we should try using digital tools and ways of working in activities that aren’t about digital products and services. Doing this has made my working life better, and I think it has made the work I do better too.

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