Can the centre hold? How to establish a central digital team

By on 18/02/2020
Anna Eriksson, Director General of Sweden’s Agency for Digital Government tells the gathered civil service leaders about her experiences of establishing a central digital unit

Central digital units can drive progress across government – but they’re not easy to establish or develop. At the Government Digital Summit, top officials from 15 countries heard how Sweden is building its team, before swapping views on how to make central units effective. Matt Ross reports

“Many of the challenges we face in digital transformation are not about technology,” said Alison Pritchard. “In reality, the digital journey is as much about the culture, the capability, the governance, the trust, and the necessary partnerships to deliver.”

Pritchard, the Director General of the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS), was opening the inaugural Global Government Digital Summit: a full day of round table sessions, held in London during September, where digital chiefs from around the world gathered to debate exactly these issues. For this audience “the agenda we have is absolutely spot-on,” said Pritchard, explaining that the discussions would cover leadership, capabilities, data, emerging technologies, and the role of the centre in driving digital agendas.

“Bringing together such talent from around the world gives us the opportunity to learn from others, who face what are in effect similar challenges and may tackle them in different ways,” she added. “And from reading everyone’s CVs, there’s no chance of people not coming forward and speaking.”

Alison Pritchard believes it’s never too late to create a central digital unit

Indeed: the event attracted national digital leaders from 15 countries on five continents, along with 13 UK digital chiefs from major departments and the devolved administrations. And the resulting debates were lively, frank and insightful, as the specialist professionals – along with knowledge partners PA Consulting, Splunk, Amazon Web Services, the Project Management Institute and Netapp – explored the common obstacles and highlighted some elegant solutions. The sessions blended presentations by delegates and knowledge partners with informal, round table discussions, providing space for everyone to contribute: “I encourage you all to intervene throughout the event,” said Global Government Forum Director Kevin Sorkin as he welcomed the delegates. “Please don’t wait for permission to speak!”

The discussions could not have been as frank had the event not been held under the Chatham House Rule, which gives delegates a veto over reporting of their comments; but by working with the speakers, Global Government Forum has produced a series of reports capturing the event’s key messages. And with such a range of top-level digital officials in the room, those messages are of real value to anyone involved in digital transformation.

Do they DIGG it?

Before the main day of round table debates, the event opened with an evening dinner at which Anna Eriksson, Director General of Sweden’s Agency for Digital Government – or ‘DIGG’ – related her experiences of establishing a central digital unit. DIGG has been up and running for a year, she explained, employing 44 staff charged with helping to improve digital policies, networks and services across central, regional and local government.

Sweden has a digitally-savvy population and some great digital public services, said Eriksson – but a lack of central coordination has impeded work to build a shared infrastructure, exchange data and develop common practices, hampering public bodies’ ability to realise the potential of digital technologies. “For seven years, we tried with different committees and ways of collaborating to get the ‘in between’, the infrastructure, to connect and work,” she said. “We haven’t succeeded, and that’s why [ministers] decided to create the agency.” In May a Digital Government Review, conducted by the OECD, gave the agency additional momentum: the review called for “much more direct leadership” of the agenda, explained Eriksson, and noted that DIGG would need adequate resources and a clear set of goals.

Anna Eriksson is keen that DIGG adopt a “collaborative leadership” approach, fostering horizontal collaboration and empowering staff – in its internal operations, as well as its relationships with other public bodies

Eriksson and her team have been thinking about closely defining those goals, she said, but “we’ve all been focused very much on delivery: we had a lot of tasks that needed doing immediately.” Public bodies across Sweden are testing and developing new applications for digital technologies, she added, “and it’s really important that we start to implement and scale it, to really make it happen.”

Winning leverage

Making that change happen – as central digital leaders around the world know only too well – is much easier with hard levers. And Eriksson acknowledged that her agency has neither a big budget, nor the power to direct other bodies’ work: “In Sweden there are 200-plus national agencies, nearly 300 municipalities and more than 20 regions,” she said. “We have no mandate over any other organisation.” So DIGG is adopting a style of “collaborative leadership, based on this being a team sport.”

And Eriksson is keen that DIGG should adopt this collaborative style – fostering horizontal collaboration and empowering staff – in its internal operations, as well as its relationships with other public bodies. She’s working to create a “networked organisation, where the teams can self-manage; where we all know what everyone is doing, and where we’re going.” The management structure has been flattened, she added, because “I don’t want to have the organisation waiting for managers to make a decision; I want everyone to make decisions!”

Strong direction from political leaders would help support the agency’s work, she added: “We need to have the minister pointing at us and saying: ‘Listen to DIGG!’” But, ultimately, DIGG’s success will depend on its ability to persuade people, rather than to direct them: “People don’t change until they personally decide for themselves that they’re going to do things differently,” she said.

Be curious, make mistakes, learn

Asked by Pritchard during the Q&A whether she’s seen any particularly inspiring examples of good digital leadership, Eriksson cited a municipal leader in the city of Helsingborg who’s “really celebrated the making of mistakes.” It’s essential, she argued, that digital leaders get out the message that people shouldn’t “be afraid to try things, to be curious, to make mistakes.” And doing so convincingly means demonstrating that behaviour, not just advocating it: “One of the most difficult things as a leader is to stand up in front of everybody and say: ‘I made this mistake, and it’s worked out okay.’ But that’s the only way that people are really going to believe you.”

Tobias Plate points out that a risk is that when the decision is made to set up a central unit, departments pause their digital programmes to await its arrival – slowing progress on the agenda across government

Tobias Plate, Head of the Digital State Unit in the German Federal Chancellery, had another question for Eriksson: had Germany left it too late to establish its own central digital team? “We keep thinking about whether we need something like this,” he said. “I sometimes think that if we do, we should have set it up 10 years ago. Is it still worth the effort?” One risk, he added, is that when the decision is made to set up a central unit, departments pause their digital programmes to await its arrival – slowing progress on the agenda across government.

“I think it’s definitely worth the effort,” replied Eriksson, adding that DIGG took just nine months to set up. Digital systems and services are being established now across the public sector, she said, and the agency will be able to help ensure that this emerging infrastructure supports – for example – the secure, efficient exchange of data, good practice in procurement, and effective use of new technologies. “The agencies will look very different in a couple of years’ time,” she said. “There’s a lot that needs to be done in the infrastructure.”

Never too late

Pritchard too was clear that it’s never too late to create a digital unit, commenting that “every country should have a GDS!” At any point in a country’s digital journey, she argued, it’s helpful to have a central team creating frameworks that support and direct departments’ work. “One of the biggest challenges for GDS is keeping up with the capability that we help build in different agencies,” she added. “You have to stay ahead of the curve, and make sure you’re continually adding value. A new agency would have to start its journey at a point that’s ahead of what the others are doing, so you keep progressing.”

Setting up a digital unit can help avert failures by improving capabilities, systems and practices across government. “Have a plan before these things happen,” Edward Hartwig said. “Incident response is a terrible way to start a government agency.”

There can, however, be awkward times to set up a digital unit. “Speaking from experience, the time you shouldn’t set up an agency is immediately following a massive [digital service] failure,” commented Edward Hartwig, Deputy Administrator of the US Digital Service. Doing so, he suggested, can lead to the unit focusing on troubleshooting rather than strategic, pan-government work: “I feel as if for the last five years I’ve been playing catch-up, chasing one emergency after another.” And setting up a digital unit can, of course, help avert such failures by improving capabilities, systems and practices across government. “Have a plan before these things happen,” he said. “Incident response is a terrible way to start a government agency.”

Sometimes, though, it takes an incident to prompt action: “A crisis is often the only time you can get political will behind the notion that something different needs to be done,” said one delegate.

Demonstrate delivery

It’s important to demonstrate a central digital unit’s practical results early on, says Chan Cheow Hoe

However an agency is born, said Chan Cheow Hoe, Chief Digital Technology Officer and Deputy Chief Executive of the Government Technology Agency of Singapore, it’s important to show practical results early on – demonstrating that “you can do things much faster, to a higher quality, and at a fraction of the cost.”

Where a public body’s alternative is to commission work from the big system integrators, he added, digital teams can often save them time and money. “Choose some projects, start small, put five or six people in there; and the moment you show you can do it, you’ll get credibility,” he concluded. “Then the answer from agencies is: ‘Yes!’ People start believing in you and your KPIs and ROIs, and everything becomes real.”

This is the first part of our report on Global Government Forum’s Digital Summit, held in London during September. The second chapter focuses on the challenge of building tech skills – and the solutions; the third part covers digital ID verification platforms; the fourth explores the issues around adopting new technologies such as artificial intelligence; and the fifth and final chapter considers a new and more supportive role for central digital teams.

The Summit was an ‘off the record’ event, but we have secured delegates’ consent to publishing these quotes – allowing us to report on the discussions while protecting delegates’ ability to speak freely.

Global Government Digital Summit 2019 attendees

In alphabetical order by surname

Civil servants:

  • Caron Alexander, Director of Digital Services, Northern Ireland Civil Service, Northern Ireland
  • Chan Cheow Hoe, Government Chief Digital Technology Officer, Smart Nation and Digital Government Office, & Deputy Chief Executive, Government Technology Agency of Singapore, Singapore
  • Kevin Cunnington, Director General of International Government Service, United Kingdom
  • Colin Cook, Director of Digital, The Scottish Government, Scotland
  • Fiona Deans, Chief Operating Officer, Government Digital Service, United Kingdom
  • Anna Eriksson, Director General, DIGG, Sweden
  • Edward Hartwig, Deputy Administrator, U.S. Digital Service, The White House, USA
  • Paul James, Chief Executive, Department of Internal Affairs, and Government Chief Digital Officer, New Zealand
  • Lauri Lugna, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of the Interior, Estonian
  • Richard Matthews, Director of CTS and Lead for the Technology Transition Programme, Digital & Technology, Ministry of Justice, United Kingdom
  • Jessica McEvoy, Deputy Director for UK & International at Government Digital Service, United Kingdom
  • Simon McKinnon, Chief Digital and Information Officer, Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), United Kingdom
  • Helen Mott, Head of Digital, Justice Digital and Technology, Ministry of Justice, United Kingdom
  • Maria Nikkilä, Head of Digital Unit, Public Sector ICT Department, Finland
  • Iain O’Neil, Director, Digital Strategy, NHSX, United Kingdom
  • Tobias Plate, Head of Unit Digital State, Federal Chancellery, Germany
  • Ian Porée, Executive Director, Community Interventions, Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, Ministry of Justice, United Kingdom
  • Alison Pritchard, Director General of the Government Digital Service, United Kingdom (Host)
  • Mikhail Pryadilnikov, Head, Center of Competence for Digital Government Transformation, Russia
  • Line Richardsen, Head of Analysis, Department of ICT Policy and Public Sector Reform, Ministry of Local Government and Modernisation, Norway
  • Francisco Rodriguez, Head of Digital Government Division, Ministry of the Presidency, Chile
  • Carlos Santiso, Director, Governance Practice, Digital Innovation in Government, Development Bank of Latin America, Colombia
  • Aaron Snow, Chief Executive Officer, Canadian Digital Service, Canada
  • Huw Stephens, Chief Information Officer – Information Workplace Solutions and Treasury Group Shared Services, HM Treasury, United Kingdom
  • Diane Taylor-Cummings, Diane Taylor-Cummings, Deputy Director Project Delivery Profession, IPA, United Kingdom
  • Rūta Šatrovaitė, Head of Digital Policy, ICT Association INFOBALT, Lithuania (former civil servant)

Knowledge Partners:

  • Neal Craig, Public Sector Digital Lead, PA Consulting
  • Per Blom, Government and Public Sector Lead, PA Consulting
  • Natalie Taylor, Digital Transformation Expert, PA Consulting
  • Cameron J. Brooks, General Manager, Europe Public Sector, Amazon Web Services
  • Chris Hayman, Director of Public Sector, UK and Ireland, Amazon Web Services
  • Greg Ainslie-Malik, Machine Learning Architect, Splunk
  • Ben Emslie, Head of Public Sector UK and Ireland, Splunk
  • Gordon Morrison, Director for EMEA Government Affairs, Splunk
  • Adrian Cooper, Field CTO UK Public Sector, NetApp
  • Alwin Magimay, Chief Transformation Officer, PMI

Global Government Forum:

  • Matt Ross, Editorial Director
  • Kevin Sorkin, Chief Executive

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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