Don’t digitise a bad process – and other takeaways from Innovation 2024

By on 28/03/2024 | Updated on 03/04/2024
Clare Martorana, Victoria Bew, and Susan Acland-Hood, during a panel session on AI at Innovation 2024. Photo: Rob Greig

Welcome to Global Government Forum’s new Digital and Data Monitor. Global Government Forum exists to help share information and ideas between public servants in different countries, and we’ve been thinking recently about how best to do that.

This monthly newsletter will bring together all the news on how governments around the world are working to improve the way they use digital technology and data. In the Global Government Forum Digital and Data Monitor – and its counterparts about AI, management and workforce, and climate change – we will share insights on best practice. This will come from our team of journalists who keep a close eye on developments, as well as from public servants themselves.

And we want to hear from you about the innovations you are undertaking. Please get in touch to share the work you are doing to deliver more digitally focused government.

Richard Johnstone
Executive editor
Global Government Forum

In this edition:

  • Digital and data takeaways from Innovation 2024
  • “None of us are as smart as all of us”: Join the collaboration community at the upcoming Government DX conference
  • Speaking (digital) strategy
  • Data, data everywhere – how it can help you think

Don’t digitise a bad process – and other takeaways from Innovation 2024

At the Innovation 2024 conference in London on 19-20 March, public service leaders from the UK and beyond came together to discuss how to make change happen in government.

Data and digital was one of the main themes of the conference – alongside artificial intelligence, government delivery, skills, and sustainability – and here are some of the key takeaways from sessions across the two days.

‘Customer experience is the what, digital experience is the how’: Attending the conference for the second year in a row, Clare Martorana, federal chief information officer, Executive Office of the President, United States of America, spoke about the importance of keeping the focus of government transformation on what is being delivered. As she put it: “Customer experience is the what, digital experience is the how”.

Martorana discussed the work that the US federal government has been undertaking to develop guidance over the last year to “help federal agencies implement digital services or improve the services that they already deliver”. This framework to improve digital experience of US government services – which has rolled out more than 100 actions and standards for the federal government – is about “trying to drive the service delivery to the public”, she said.

And if service improvement is the ‘what’, the role of technology as the ‘how’ is equally important to focus on. Martorana said that the US federal government needs to improve the underlying technology it uses to deliver for citizens “because the operating costs of some of these older technologies are just becoming really burdensome, and many of them become outdated, so they’re not secure”.

Indeed, Martorana says cybersecurity is “job number one” for government as ensuring government systems are secure is key to public trust. And, as Martorana told GGF when she spoke to us last year, cybersecurity is “the point of the arrow” that can be used to drive wider technology improvement in government.

“In order to achieve multi-factor authentication log in and encrypted data both in rest and in transit, you have to modernise your systems, and as you’re modernising those systems, you darn well better be doing research with your users and making sure you understand what your customer needs, as well as what the employees need,” she said. “So, you have the forward momentum of cybersecurity carrying along IT modernisation and customer experience.”

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Data is a big government focus: Martorana also highlighted the importance of data to the work of government, and she was not alone.

Gina Gill, chief digital and information officer at the UK’s Ministry of Justice, said that better data sharing was one of the keys that could help increase the pace of transformation in government.

“Data sharing is really, really hard across governments today,” she said, highlighting that it took the MoJ two years to negotiate a memorandum of understanding with HM Revenue and Customs, the UK’s tax authority, to share data to check eligibility for legal aid. “I think unlocking the ability for people to share is really important.”

‘Be deliberate in designing policy for the digital age’: Linked to this, back on the main conference stage, Gill highlighted the need for government to be more “deliberate” in what it means by transformation, and by digital government.

“Are we trying to be government with digital services to deliver productivity, or actually do we want to be digital government? Because those are two different things, and I think they drive different behaviours in terms of joining up services, in terms of what that end user experience feels like, and in terms of sharing data. One means you’re focused on your own products and services in your own world, and the other means that we have got to join up more across government.”

Government also needs to get more deliberate in “designing policy for a digital age”, she added: “We’ve got some pockets of brilliance where we have done that but I don’t think that we do [everywhere].”

Other speakers also warned that government processes do not support agile, user-centered and iterative policymaking.

Stephanie Kaiser, chief product officer of the German government’s DigitalService, which manages central digitalisation projects in the federal administration, said agile approaches were not supported by how government works.

“So, our current mission is to go deep with selected project partners who trust us and we fix the underlying infrastructure, the data, the interoperability standards – all these need to be fixed,” she said. The aim is to build an operating model with such partners that can then be used “to advise government on how these things that we find can be learnings of the government as a whole”.

Martorana was asked what government digital services would look like in five years if she had no restrictions. She said she would build them “like your favourite private sector company that you rely on”.

“If we were trying to drive technology innovation, we would have probably services that were completely personalised to you,” she said. “You’d have complete and total control of your data, and allow your data to go wherever you want it to go from a privacy and security perspective, and then systems would easily be configured and designed for your consumption and benefit.

“But that’s a little bit magical thinking. I think, from where we are today to where we need to go, we still have so much foundational work to do, both on the policy side as well as on the implementation side.”

As conference moderator Siobhan Benita put it in response: “You don’t just digitalise a bad process, you need to transform the process beneath the surface as well.”

Read more: Incoming civil service COO Cat Little sets priority to empower Whitehall departments

Government should embrace smaller providers: Other speakers flagged the potential for government procurement reforms to help drive innovation.

Mike Potter, chief digital officer at the UK’s Central Digital and Data Office, said that his priorities in the next steps for digital transformation include making it much easier for government to work with small- and medium-sized technology companies. “We work with big guys but we – and they – do not have complete locus and control over innovation. There are so many other people, and we need to make it easier for them to work with us.”

Governments around the world have long planned to move away from big tech suppliers covering all of a transformation project’s scope, and have instead aimed to break the work up to ensure specialist support. But Potter’s comments indicate there is more to do.

Kaiser also raised the idea of bringing a technology solution down to “the very smallest level possible” so government can be “confronted with reality” about the work that is required. “That’s very important because in that moment when actual users hit the actual product, trust is built if it is working – and if it is not working, we can then iterate on it, bringing people in and making it useful.”

Public servants’ digital skills need to be improved: Another area where progress could be made is in government digital skills, said Potter. He said there was a need to invest in skills. “We [in government digital agencies] need to be digitally capable, our colleagues [in the wider civil service] need to be digitally confident, and our leaders need to be digitally informed.”

Potter was not the only speaker to note the need to get digital skills right, with Gill highlighting that the conversation around skills can focus on developers or technical experts, but “it’s much broader than that”.

“We’re already in a digital age, but we are moving further into that and |I think there will be a profound change over the next 10-20 years in terms of the way that we live,” she said. “And so effectively, if we’re bringing leaders into roles that aren’t digital in government, we need to be thinking about that [journey], because if you’re a CEO of an agency in government, you are effectively running a bit of a tech business, and we need to start thinking about it like that.” This will mean looking at “how are we making sure that we’ve got the right skills and capabilities – whether that’s upskilling people or whether that’s thinking about how we recruit people into roles.”

A lot of this comes down to what Gill called “cultural change”, and many other speakers across the conference picked up similar themes. It is not the technology that is the obstacle to change in government, but the culture and the risk appetite.

Read more on Innovation 2024:

Join senior leaders from across the US federal government at GovernmentDX

18 and 19 April 2024, Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, Washington, D.C.

Hot on the heels of Innovation, Global Government Forum is bringing public servants from across the United States federal government and beyond together in Washington D.C. to share insight on how to use technology to improve the digital experience of interacting with government.

This new event – GovernmentDX – will feature speakers from the White House, and from US federal government departments and agencies including the Department of State, General Services Administration, United States Digital Service, and the Office of Personnel and Management. Plus, international speakers from Canada, Estonia, Germany, Singapore and the United Kingdom will share their best practice across sessions on people-focused services, such as delivering a better constituent experience; optimising government information for the search engine age; and how to get federal technology right for a modern government.

Find out more about the conference here.

Speaking (digital) strategy

Mark Vermeer, director for digital government in the Netherlands’ Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations

Just days after the Innovation conference, Global Government Forum published the first report from last October’s Global Government Forum Digital Summit. The first session of the conference, which brought together public service digital leaders in Ottawa, Canada, examined how government can develop digital strategies that stick, and driving delivery from the centre.

Mark Vermeer, the director for digital government in the Netherlands’ Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations, summed up the importance of a digital strategy in government by saying: “The digital revolution is rapidly changing the way we live – and together we face challenges that we could not have imagined 30 years ago.

“We believe it’s important that as a government, we take control and responsibility to make sure we’re not just chasing innovations, but that we steer them in the right direction.”

As Vermeer’s comments made clear, the Dutch government takes a broad view of its strategic role – focusing on purpose as well as progress. “We have three guiding principles; three questions we asked ourselves,” he explained. “Do we leave nobody behind in digital transformation? Can people trust the digital world? And do people have control over their own digital lives? These are fundamental questions.”

Netherlands officials “started with the societal challenges”, said Vermeer. “From these, we set goals – goals that should impact society, not just government – and chose some target indicators. So, there’s an agenda with actions that we’re trying to execute to achieve these goals: this is an implementation approach.”

This was music to the ears of Kevin Cunnington, the former director general of the UK’s Government Digital Service, who recently produced two reports on digital transformation with Global Government Forum. Built on interviews with seven digital chiefs from leading nations, the first report identified the “seven most pressing problems” facing government CIOs; the second, based on further extensive research, set out “three solutions to each of these” challenges. And one key finding, he explained, is that strategies will only deliver change if they “map progress against key benchmarks and set out some targets for where they want to be in the future”.

Too often, Cunnington added, strategies are “samey” – containing “nothing objectionable, but equally nothing actionable”. For them to be effective, their lofty aims must be tied closely to the practical changes required to deliver transformation. In the words of the first finding of the first report: “Visions often depict a future picture of great digital service – but unless governments detail the levers, resources and reforms required to realise their goals, progress is typically slow and shallow.”

To make progress, therefore, requires building relationships across government. Vermeer emphasised the need to engage with actors across government and beyond – a particularly challenging task in the Netherlands, which has four layers of government. At the centre, he explained, digital leaders focus on the issues “that transcend the sectors that ministries are responsible for”. Here, CIOs come together to identify shared goals and agree collective actions.

Likewise, the UK government has worked for years to develop both a cross-government Digital, Data and Technology (DDAT) profession and a feeling of community and common purpose among its digital leaders. “Now we’re in a position where all of our chief digital officers come together every month,” Thomas Beautyman, deputy director for government digital capability in the UK’s Cabinet Office, said.

Andre Mendes, chief information officer of the US Department of Commerce, was a big supporter of this collegiate approach. He’s spent years agreeing a technical statement of direction with the CIOs of all 13 bureaus within his department – and he believes they signed in part because “we made sure that whenever there was a bureau that could offer a service to all the others, then rather than have a top-down, Department of Commerce initiative, we let that bureau provide services for everybody within their area of expertise”. Here, building a team – rather than leaning on executive power – proved really helpful, encouraging a sense of ownership and empowerment among those who would have to deliver the change.

Read the report in full on the Global Government Forum website: Practical plans: how to build a digital strategy that gets delivered.

And listen to: The Government Transformed podcast from Global Government Forum, which shines a light on how governments are transforming the services they deliver.

Data, data everywhere – how it can help you think

Government collects a lot of data, but it is not currently making best use of it to inform the delivery of better services.

As part of Global Government Forum’s Public Service Data Live conference programme, we will be hosting a webinar that will provide practical insight on how to use data in policymaking to meet UK cabinet secretary Simon Case’s ambition to get analysts from across government collaborating on shared problems. Experts will come together to share ideas on the best uses of data to measure performance, and how data can be presented in a way that frontline public servants can use to drive better provision.

Register for the ‘Unlocking insight from data to support decision-making’ session to find out:

  • How government is using data to develop better-targeted and personalised services through initiatives such as the Shared Outcomes Fund.
  • How data can be used to evaluate government delivery and improve services.
  • How government can join up the data it holds through projects such as the data marketplace.

Register now

Thanks for reading this newsletter and keep an eye out for next month’s edition, when we will be looking at the 10th anniversary of the UK government’s digital academy –  and what’s next.

Join Global Government Forum’s LinkedIn group to keep up to date with all the insight public and civil servants need to know.

About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

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