Digital units: from the hard push to the helping hand

By on 18/03/2020
Chan Cheow Hoe

On their launch, many central digital functions used strong-arm tactics to push departments into line. But at the Government Digital Summit, digital leaders from around the world signalled a change of course – mapping out a new and more supportive role for their central teams. Matt Ross reports

A decade ago, governments began disrupting their IT operations and processes by introducing central digital agencies. Armed with the power to set standards and oversee departments’ technology investments, many used these levers robustly – herding reluctant public bodies down the path towards modern, truly digital techniques and technologies such as user-focused design, Cloud storage, common platforms and integrated services.

But today, many digital units are taking a very different line. Singapore has one of the world’s most advanced central digital functions: Chan Cheow Hoe is both the country’s Chief Digital Officer, based in the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDGO) – from where he reports directly to the prime minister on policymaking, strategy and roadmapping – and Deputy Chief Executive of the Government Technology Agency, a delivery team providing engineering and product development. But at Global Government Forum’s Digital Summit – a day of informal discussions, attended by 27 national and departmental digital leaders from 16 countries – he told delegates that he doesn’t want to give public bodies a hard push: his goal is to tempt them forward with a really attractive offer. His work, he said, “isn’t about controlling the agencies: it’s about giving them things to empower them.”

That struck a chord with other delegates. “To some extent, in the centres maybe we’ve taken too much control,” said one national digital leader, arguing that digital units can be too distant from the needs of frontline staff and service users to make the right calls. “If the incentives for an IT shop are risk aversion and keeping costs low, the odds that they’re going to be responsive to the user needs of the people using the tools they’re building and buying are low,” they commented.

Build the workforce

Singapore’s central teams, for example, put a lot of work into attracting and developing a digital workforce for government as a whole. The first step is to provide internships and technology camps for schoolchildren, Chan explained: “That sparks interest at a very early age.” Then the government offers undergraduates scholarships, before hiring the best and providing intensive training and support; this group evolves into the next generation of digital leaders.

A slide from Chan Cheow Hoe’s presentation: the Singapore government aims to develop a digital workforce by providing internships and technology camps for schoolchildren, scholarships for undergraduates, and intensive training for the most promising students

Meanwhile, highly-skilled technical professionals are recruited into a group named CODE: the Community of Distinguished Engineers. These people are “very, very good at what they do in a specific field of technology, but they don’t want to run a team,” said Chan. Given the tools to pursue their specialism in a system that respects their skills, he added, “they coach the younger people, and become role models.”

Many CODE members work in Singapore’s six ‘capability centres’, Chan continued. Since they were set up in 2015 to provide commissioning skills and delivery services in key fields such as cyber security, data science and applications, these have grown rapidly and now employ nearly 700 staff.

Provide the platforms

The SNDGO, Chan explained, is keen for government agencies to move their services onto common platforms and use shared tools – but rather than mandating a shift, he’s working to ensure that the centre’s offer out-competes the alternatives. Commissioning cloud-based services to agreed standards, his teams “stitched them together” to create the Singapore Government Technology Stack: a menu of digital capabilities, providing all of the “plumbing” required to support agencies’ own applications.

“Biometrics as a service, notifications as a service – these are all little things, but everyone needs them,” said Chan. “So now you don’t need to build an app from scratch: you look at the catalogues, bundle them into a container, bind them together, and you can roll out the app much more quickly and cheaply.” Only with designated Strategic National Projects does the centre take full ownership of the build process, creating “product families” around capabilities such as e-payments and digital identity under the oversight of ministerial committees.

Simon McKinnon (far left) asked fellow delegates how the centre gets around agencies’ instinctive desire to retain full control of all their business processes

That made sense to Simon McKinnon, Chief Digital and Information Officer at the UK’s Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) – but how, he asked, does the centre get around agencies’ instinctive desire to retain full control of all their business processes? Mainly by offering a better service, replied Chan. Approached by an agency that had been quoted S$50m [US$37m] and 2.5 years to build a grant management system, he recalled, his team repurposed elements of an existing product: “We did it in six months and charged them S$3m [US$2m] – so there’s a tremendous incentive for them to work with us.”

Don’t prod; persuade

This focus on presenting departments with the best option available is crucial to success, commented another national digital leader: common services are an essential part of the digital puzzle, but some departments have developed “a high degree of scepticism about [the centre’s] ability to deliver them: there’s nothing worse for a department than being asked or forced to rely on something that doesn’t work.” To ensure that new systems are “delivered in response to departmental user needs, those services should not be foisted on the departments,” they argued: “The departments’ trust and buy-in should be earned.” The goal must be to offer “a set of tools that make people’s lives easier: a better set of Lego, so people can build stuff better and faster and cheaper.”

In Singapore, Chan commented, the digital function sweetens the pill for departments by holding out the prospect of funding their own digital developments. “If an agency’s building something that we think could benefit the rest of government, we co-fund them to create a service that everyone can use, rather than them just building another monolithic platform somewhere else,” he explained.

The USDS’s Edward Hartwig explains that he sometimes persuades departments to “hedge their bets” by funding a parallel workstream

And in countries where the centre lacks the capacity to provide a comprehensive suite of platforms and services, it can at least demonstrate the value of truly digital techniques – encouraging departments to adopt them. Edward Hartwig, Deputy Administrator of the US Digital Service, noted that he sometimes persuades departments to “hedge their bets” by funding a parallel workstream. “If it’s a [US]$100m project, I want them to peel off $2m to hire a multi-disciplinary digital project team, and give the team access to go at the same problem for a year,” he said. “Then they can see what the $2m team has accomplished versus what the $98m has accomplished, and ask realistically which is the better path to stay on for year two.”

Improving approvals

So today’s digital units have important functions both in workforce development, and in building attractive platforms and services to underpin departments’ digital programmes. And they have another crucial role to play: that of advising and influencing those outside the digital field who operate cross-government approval processes, in a bid to reshape their requirements and systems around the needs of digital transformation.

Take the project spending approval systems operated by central finance functions: as former Canadian Chief Technology Officer Alex Benay told GGF in a 2019 interview, these systems often mitigate against the Agile, iterative approach best suited to digital projects. “One of the first steps is going to have to be figuring out a better way to budget for projects,” one delegate commented.

Departmental programme governance processes also need reforming, argued another: many give the appearance of robust risk management, but aren’t close enough to the delivery team to spot the real threats. Too often, they said, “everyone reviews ‘traffic light’ ratings on spreadsheets that are a month out of date, and imagines that that’s governance. It’s like sitting in the VIP enclosure at the races and imagining that you’re riding the horse!”  

Global Government Forum’s Digital Summit was attended by 27 national and departmental digital leaders from 16 countries

Digital centres, one delegate argued, can help align and soften some of the overlapping, misaligned approval systems that – in their disparate attempts to minimise risk and guarantee quality – add layers of bureaucracy while overlooking the genuine threats to delivery. The system “is not optimised for service delivery; it’s optimised for risk aversion,” they said. So the goal must be to ensure that “all the different departments and agencies and commissions that a programme office has to deal with” are pointing in the same direction, operating mutually-supportive frameworks that safeguard value for money and strengthen coordination without distorting projects, overburdening staff with onerous processes, or setting out mutually exclusive requirements.

A new role for the digital centre

Digital units are well-placed to foster this kind of change, they continued: they can “build up evidence and create the case for policy change, then go to our colleagues who own the policy and say: “This is the experience we’re having with the departments on the ground: this is what’s working, and this is what’s getting in the way’.”

“Reducing friction while retaining risk assurance in oversight is a space where people are hungry for better answers,” they added. “We want to use measurement and data to explain that the risks these systems observe aren’t the real risks. Has anyone measured the value of the processes involved in budgeting and oversight and compliance, versus their costs?”

Yes, replied the DWP’s Simon McKinnon – and when his department did so, it found that on average “it had cost more to go through the bureaucracy than to go through the ‘Discovery’ and ‘Alpha’ phases” of project development. DWP’s solution was to set up a dedicated fund, resourcing promising projects through those first two stages, “and when we got to the end of Alpha, we’d decide if it was worth going through the business case planning process.”

Another delegate noted that their agency has also lowered the barriers to getting a project off the ground, creating a simple two-page form that gives access to Discovery phase funding. “As long as we can keep track of the number of those forms we’ve pushed forward, we’ve got some idea of the risk we’re carrying,” they said.

As influencers, digital functions have one further role, said another delegate: to “impress upon leadership, in the civil service and at a political level, the significance of [technology] and why they should want to invest in it.” Heavyweight political support for digital transformation is crucial, agreed Chan: “We’re lucky in that our prime minister is very interested in technology,” he said. “When we brief him and he says: ‘Yes, let’s do this,’ the agencies tend to fall in line. It’s quite important!”

A slide from Chan Cheow Hoe’s presentation illustrating the role of the centre

Offer a service, not a sanction

This political cover gives Chan extensive soft power, helping to compensate for his reluctance to force agencies to adopt the digital function’s policies and services. But he was clear that he does also retain hard levers. The Public Sector Investment Review Committee, for example, must approve the business case and technical architecture for large government purchases. And the SNDGO is currently doing “an entire rewrite” of digital policies, developing new standards, guidelines and outcome goals: agencies will have to show how they’re achieving the desired outcomes, and “if you don’t want to follow the standards, you’ll have to explain why and show how your route will fulfil the outcomes.”

The shift, then, is in part one of tone and approach: Singapore’s digital function retains its powers, but its goal is to win agencies’ support rather than to require their compliance. If agencies have good reasons for following their own path, said Chan, he’s happy to let them go ahead.

Central teams have been on a journey, noted one delegate: from “centrally consolidating all the authority and resources” for technology operations, many are moving to a more collegiate, supportive approach – providing the “better set of Lego”, while helping to clear away the obstacles to better digital delivery. “I find myself asking: how can we swing that pendulum back a bit, enabling service providers to deliver lots of value while respecting policy needs?” they concluded. “We should evolve from being controllers and approvers, and become enablers.”

This is the fifth and final part of our series of reports on Global Government Forum’s Digital Summit, held in London late last year. The first part covers delegates’ discussions on how to create central digital units; the second reports their debates on how to build digital skills and capability; the third examines the session on the use of data and identity verification; and the fourth explores the issues around adopting new technologies such as artificial intelligence.

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 sector management, policymaking and service delivery. He was the editor of Civil Service World 2008-14, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of Regeneration & Renewal 2002-08, 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 communications consultancy, marketing and journalism work for publishers, public sector unions and private sector suppliers to government.

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