Digital strategies and human tactics: making technology work in the real world

By on 14/03/2023 | Updated on 14/04/2023
A picture of Mona Fortier
Minister Fortier speaking at the Global Government Digital Summit 2022, in Ottawa, Canada

During a packed evening at the 2022 Global Government Digital Summit, digital chiefs from around the world discussed national strategies and research reports – then a departmental transformation lead’s plea for help really struck a chord. Matt Ross reports

“The government needs to focus on the future of digital in Canada,” said Mona Fortier. “Canadians place great value on sharing best practices, lessons learned and opportunities for collaboration – and this Summit is the perfect occasion to do just that. I’m excited to see what happens when different levels of government in Canada and around the world come together and collaborate on common objectives.”

Minister Fortier, responsible for Canada’s digital portfolio in her role as president of the Treasury Board, was welcoming 30 senior digital leaders from 12 countries to the 2022 Global Government Digital Summit: an annual gathering built around informal discussions on the issues facing digital leaders everywhere. Addressing participants during the evening before the main discussions, Fortier outlined the Government of Canada Digital Ambition – which maps out a path towards both modernised tools for employees, and accessible services for Canada’s people and businesses.

Canada’s Digital Ambition contains four strategic themes, three of which were reflected in the Digital Summit’s main sessions. The first theme, ‘Excellence in technology and operations’, focuses on maximising the effectiveness digital investments – a key topic of the Summit session on ‘Escaping the legacy trap’. ‘Data-enabled digital services and programs’ covers subjects including the development of digital ID, which had its own Summit session. ‘Action-ready digital strategy and policy’ meanwhile aims to promote digital standards, improve cross-government coordination, and catalyse supportive changes across government’s operations.

Finally, ‘Structural evolution in funding, talent and culture’ considers how best to build capabilities and tackle the institutional obstacles to transformation. “I’m glad to see that this Summit will be looking at how we can overcome the barriers presented by vertical systems of funding, governance and accountability,” said Fortier, pointing to the Summit session on ‘Creating and transforming interdepartmental services’. Under this fourth theme, she added, “we also need to make sure employees have the right digital skills and are supported by enabling leaders. Now, this session on ‘Developing the digital workforce’ will tackle that challenge.”

After the evening dinner Kevin Cunnington, former director general of the UK’s Government Digital Service, rose to take the group through the findings of the 2022 Digital Leaders report. This report, entitled  ‘Asking the experts: What do digital leaders need to succeed?’, was produced by Cunnington with Global Government Forum on the basis of interviews with digital chiefs from seven leading nations, and includes seven main findings.

It found, for example that “digital identity is the ‘Rosetta stone’,” said Cunnington. “If you don’t have digital identity, you can’t join up all the silos of legacy data. And if you can’t do that, you can’t build services around ‘life events’: things like registering a birth, which cut across multiple departments”. Only 11 of the world’s 193 countries have fully addressed the digital identity problem, said Cunnington, while “the rest of us have all struggled”.

Kevin Cunnington

Several findings cover the need to update traditional systems in fields such as financial management and procurement. To take one example, said Cunnington, “finance departments almost universally think of funding digital as they do railways or bridges. But it doesn’t work like that in digital transformation, because what you’re doing is changing citizens’ behaviour – and maybe behaviour doesn’t change in the way you anticipated”. Consequently, digital project leaders “need more agility than the people building railways” – requiring a different approach to project approval and management. “That message is still not landing with a lot of finance departments,” he added.

Similarly, procurement processes have not been updated to reflect how digital projects develop. “There you are, working in two-week ‘sprints’ and ‘scrums’ delivering new services, and you realise that you’ve got to buy a bit of functionality,” said Cunnington. “A number of countries have told us that you have to stop, write requirements, put these requirements out in a proposal, assess the responses – and six months later they can move forward again.” These comments rang a bell with one senior digital leader: “We’ve never gone near addressing the institutional blockers around our funding and governance processes,” they commented.

Finally, Cunnington relayed some of the report’s findings on workforce issues – including the difficulty of paying high enough salaries to attract digital leaders in a highly competitive jobs market. “This problem was particularly acute in countries that have a really strong domestic tech sector,” he commented, adding that research carried out by GGF for NTT DATA had found that most UK senior civil servants want to see digital leaders paid more. “It’s not the civil services holding us back,” he concluded. “It’s the political masters who don’t want to see civil servants paid that much.”

“The final finding won’t come as a surprise,” he continued: “Departmental ministers, permanent secretaries and the like often don’t have the skills and competence to run transformation programmes” – yet digital chiefs cannot transform business processes without their backing.

Asif Poonja, North America chief technology officer for the event knowledge partner Fujitsu, highlighted another key group whose engagement is crucial to effective transformation: junior and mid-level staff. For digital strategies to realise their goals, he said, leaders must “take that broad strategy, bring it down to every single individual in the organisation, and carve out their individual purpose that will align to your mission”. Staff must be given the opportunity to innovate and experiment: in a major Fujitsu transformation programme, he said, “we allowed individuals to bring their ideas to the table: no idea is wrong; no judgement, no failures. We rewarded breakthrough ideas to transform us quickly”.

To Cunnington’s point about leadership, Poonja agreed that organisational and digital leaders must have “the right level of experience – the scars on their back to address the difficult phases; make the tough decisions; have the empathy to understand the team and relate to their challenges”.

And how to engage workforces in this way? Cunnington noted that organisational leaders aren’t always aware of the value and requirements of digital technologies. The UK’s use of a Digital Academy to train staff of all disciplines and seniorities, he said, had helped to change attitudes among senior leaders.

“We spent a lot of time and effort training the 80% of people who weren’t digital practitioners, to get them confident with what we were doing,” he recalled – and eventually they reached a critical mass. “We estimated that it took about 10% of our target group to be fully educated in digital before the thinking became digital by default.”

The UK has now made a public commitment to upskill 90% of senior civil servants in digital and data by 2025, commented Megan Lee Devlin, chief executive of the UK’s Central Digital & Data Office (CDDO): “We are developing a Digital Excellence Programme, specifically designed for senior leaders. For the most senior ranks, we have established mechanisms for them to be more closely involved in day-to-day governance of the digital agenda, such as through our Permanent Secretary Digital and Data Board, our Permanent Secretary Service Transformation board, and through appointing executive sponsors to lead each of the missions of our strategy.” 

Megan Lee Devlin

Meanwhile, the CDDO is working with the leaders of other disciplines and functions to embed digital learning into their own professional development frameworks: “It’s important that people see digital and data as a core part of their role, not a separate set of competencies,” she added.

As the discussion developed, one departmental digital chief asked the group’s advice on their biggest headache. Charged with reforming six enterprise systems, they explained, they’re keen to adopt a truly digital approach: “I have hundreds of people that I am now going to try and lead on an Agile journey,” they said. “My worry is that we’re going to try agile, but it’ll be like taking a spreadsheet and putting it into Google Docs. How do we be truly transformational with people that are not trained in agile, not trained in innovation, but are experts at their function?”

The digital chief’s conundrum struck a chord, and advice and experiences poured in from the group. The choice of delivery partner is a key decision, said Hillary Hartley, chief digital and data officer of the Ontario Public Service: “Find someone that won’t just come in and build it for you, but that can work right alongside your team, collaborate, co-deliver with you, and leave your team set up for success,” she commented. “The other piece that I think is really important is to flip your mental model from hiring a systems integrator to government becoming the systems integrator; then you’re in control of the vision and how it comes together.”

Megan Lee Devlin emphasised again the need to train staff across the workforce in the characteristics and requirements of digital technologies. “Take the time with senior leaders to help them understand the art of the possible, and collectively agree on the aspiration level. Take the time building the right capabilities, both in terms of the digital teams and in terms of upskilling the business owners,” she advised. “The other thing is: start with a small pilot that has a big business impact; one that touches a high volume of users and is particularly frustrating or costly. Start with that, prove that it works – and once you’ve shown what’s possible, then scale.”

As the evening wound up, Cunnington reflected on the unique forum provided by the Government Digital Summit. “You don’t often get digital leaders from all across the world in the same room together, explaining that they’ve got the same set of ambitions and problems and slightly different solutions – and learning from each other,” he said.

“I want to thank Global Government Forum for facilitating that exchange,” concluded minister Fortier. “And I thank senior digital leaders from Canada and abroad for the work you do, and your commitment to harnessing the power of digital transformation to improve how government delivers services to citizens.” On the following day the group would begin debating exactly how to achieve these goals, addressing the challenges identified by Canada’s digital strategy, in the Digital Leaders report – and, most vividly, by the transformation lead eager to pursue digital reforms in a thoroughly non-digital organisation. 

The 2022 Global Government Digital Summit was hosted by the Government of Canada in Ottawa in October. This article covers the event’s evening session. The second covers the first daytime session, which examined how best to pursue and promote digital ID; the third covers producing strategies and driving transformation; the fourth focuses on a debate about the digital workforce; and the fifth covers the discussion on transitioning from legacy systems.

Although the Summit is a private event, GGF produces these reports to share as much of the discussions as possible with our readers – checking before publication that participants are happy to be quoted. Visit to learn more about the Summit. 

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

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