Digital transformation in government: how to move from vision to implementation

By on 08/02/2024 | Updated on 15/02/2024
A episode card for Government Transformation podcast episode 2 with Siobhan Benita and Kevin Cunnington

How can governments and departments create their own vision for digital transformation? What does it take to move from vision to implementation? And what common mistakes should be avoided?

In the first episode of GGF’s new podcast Government Transformed – brought to you with support from knowledge partner Visa – former UK Government Digital Service (GDS) director general Kevin Cunnington defined true transformation and outlined its potential. Now in this second episode, he and podcast host and former senior civil servant Siobhan Benita discuss how governments can make progress in their digital transformation journey – and why the worst mistake an organisation can make is to under-invest in its people.

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When Cunnington joined the UK civil service in 2013, the heads of government departments, he says, “didn’t know what digital transformation was” and very few departments had a “decent vision” for what they might achieve with tech.

He describes the process of creating such a vision within the Department for Work and Pensions – a project that involved 18 months of hard work and which demonstrated “the layers of change that were required right from the very basic philosophy of how to run the department, through to the change to the organisation and processes, and how it affected the lives of citizens”.

Ten years later, and many governments around the world have detailed strategies in place. A vision is an important and necessary starting point. But as the Digital Leaders Study for which he and Global Government Forum interviewed officials in more than 60 countries highlights, says Cunnington: “It’s how you implement it that makes the difference between being successful in this transforming landscape and being unsuccessful.”  

In the podcast, he shares the key principles of getting transformation right, and some of the common mistakes countries should be mindful of avoiding. In the UK’s case, for example, major transformation projects are usually given an unrealistic timeframe of five years or less as politicians try to squeeze them in between elections, while there is also a “real deficit” of transformation skills at the highest levels of the civil service. What’s more, the visions being implemented are “generally quite poor” making it difficult to convince those in the organisation that the transformation will be worth the effort; and funding is often allocated without detailed understanding of capability, accountability and designs or about how the money will be spent.

Globally, other mistakes include a lack of or poorly executed digital identity provision, and funding and procurement obstacles.

How to know what good looks like in transformation  

Cunnington also talks about The 7 Lenses of Digital Transformation, a project GDS, the Cabinet Office and the Infrastructure and Projects Authority embarked on having realised that 95% of the UK government’s major projects “fail to reach their original objectives and timeframes”. The aim, he says, was to “try and change that dynamic”.

Including aspects such as transformational leadership, collaboration and accountability, it is a methodology – since adopted by other countries such as Canada and Australia – that shows governments “what good looks like” as well as the traps to avoid.  

One of the key things that both the Digital Leaders Study and The 7 Lenses of Digital Transformation makes clear is that: “It’s always about people. If you don’t have people who can do [transformation], understand it, you’re never going to get it done,” Cunnington says.

Under-investing in people is, he adds, “the big mistake, almost universally, everybody still makes”.

And there’s another people-related factor that can hamper transformation: the tendency of civil and public services to hire graduates who will follow the organisation’s orthodoxy rather than creatives who will challenge the status quo.

“I’d say this as an outsider coming in,” Cunnington says (he joined the civil service from the private sector having been global head of online for Vodafone), “I felt quite strange compared to the normality of the civil service. And the civil service just doesn’t seem to welcome those kind of left-handed crazy people that think laterally about things and are constantly inquisitive and keep saying, ‘Well, why do you do it like that?’”  

So, what is Cunnington’s advice for governments around the world looking to move from vision to implementation? The questions governments should ask themselves are, he says: “If you’ve got a vision, do you really have a design plan? Do you know who’s doing what, who’s accountable? Are you relying too much on collaboration or otherwise? Do you have the right people both at the top, and who can do the stuff that the digital transformation directors can’t do? And do you have the engineering capability?”

Also sharing the mistakes the UK made in trying to introduce a national digital ID system, why he believes AI won’t be the dominant force in government digital transformation in our lifetimes, and why it’s vital never to lose sight of the problem you’re trying to solve, this is an episode brimming with practical advice on achieving true transformation in government.

Episode three of Government Transformed is out next week. Listen to all the episodes in the series here.

Future episodes in the Government Transformed series focus on:
Making digital transformation happen
Building citizen trust in transformed services
And tracking the digital transformation journey, from Barbados to Iceland

The guests in future episodes are: Ben Roseth, modernisation of the state senior specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank; Shira Lev-Ami, CEO of Israel’s National Digital Agency; Marva Howell, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Industry, Innovation, Science and Technology, Barbados; Eilidh McLaughlin, head of the Scottish Government’s Digital Citizen Division; Vigdís Jóhannsdóttir, chief marketing officer at Digital Iceland; and Àstrid Desset, former director general of the Open Administration Consortium, Open Government of Catalonia.

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