Practical plans: how to build a digital strategy that gets delivered

By on 24/03/2024 | Updated on 15/04/2024
Mark Vermeer, director for digital government in the Netherlands’ Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations

The shelves of governments around the world are groaning with digital strategies that laid out their ambitious goals – then collapsed on contact with reality. At the Government Digital Summit, top leaders from around the world explored how to produce a strategy that generates real change.

“The digital revolution is rapidly changing the way we live – and together we face challenges that we could not have imagined 30 years ago,” said Mark Vermeer, the director for digital government in the Netherlands’ Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations. “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.”

Vermeer was explaining his government’s approach to digital strategy at the Government Digital Summit. This annual event, organised by Global Government Forum and hosted by the Government of Canada, brings digital leaders from around the world together each autumn to debate the common issues they face. The 2023 Summit, held in Ottawa, attracted more than 50 top officials from 15 countries. Following an evening dinner addressed by US government CIO Clare Martorana, the Summit’s first daytime session addressed a thorny and perennial topic for digital leaders at the centre of government: “How best to drive progress across the civil service – supporting, encouraging and requiring departments to adopt and implement cross-government digital strategies.”

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.”

Strategic effectiveness

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.”

This means having – and winning – the difficult conversations before the strategy is published. Securing the tools to deliver change is an essential part of developing an effective strategy – and setting out measurable targets not only provides clarity over the goals, but also leverage in every future debate over prioritisation and resources.

For example, the UK’s 2022-25 ‘digital roadmap’ pledges to raise the proportion of digital and data professionals in the workforce to 6% by 2025, noted Thomas Beautyman, deputy director for government digital capability in the UK’s Cabinet Office. Stating “externally what the objective is gives us a really important crutch,” he explained. “It means that every time a department has a conversation with the Treasury about the need to be funded in this area, every time they make a decision about apportioning budget, they’ve got a stake in the ground that says: ‘We’ve made a public commitment that there’ll be 6%’.”

Listen: The Government Transformed podcast from Global Government Forum shines a light on how governments are transforming the services they deliver.

Be owned, or be ignored

“Once everybody understands that we’re really listening and we want to do it together, they get very excited”. Katja Väänänen, head of Finland’s Digitalisation Unit

That particular target is ‘sponsored’ by Matthew Rycroft, permanent secretary of the Home Office – and this named attribution of responsibility highlights another key characteristic of effective strategies: CIOs and departmental leaders are involved in shaping the agenda, and willing to take ownership of delivery. This is key to averting the risk set out in the first GGF report’s seventh finding, which noted that “departmental leaders and ministers often lack the understanding and commitment to drive digital transformation”.

Indeed, these principles apply at all levels, said Katja Väänänen, the head of Finland’s Digitalisation Unit. “We cooperate regularly with different stakeholders in civil society,” she said. “It’s very important that you listen to what they have to say, and take it into the strategy and programmes. The strength of this is that once everybody understands that we’re really listening and we want to do it together, they get very excited about it; they want to give their expertise and work with us.”

Väänänen explained that Finland’s digital officials benefit from both a high level of public trust in government, and the “political will to transform the public sector with digitalisation”. The previous government established a ministerial working group on the topic, which published a digital strategy and set up a coordination group involving senior digital officials from across government to drive delivery.

“All the ministries have appointed representatives in this office, to ensure close cooperation between different sectors,” she said, adding that they are now putting together a civil service-wide list of major digital programmes to further boost coordination. Power passed to a right-wing coalition government after elections in April 2023, but the new ministers haven’t felt the need to start afresh.

“It’s been like a relay race from one government to the other,” Väänänen commented.

The power of community

Vermeer also 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.

To foster that collaboration between CIOs, Beautyman said 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,” he said. “Next month, we’ll bring all of our DDAT senior civil servants together; about 300 of our most senior digital leaders will come together for the first time.”

Most digital chiefs embrace the opportunity to “be heard; feel like they’re part of a community”, he commented. “It can be lonely being in that position, when you feel like you’re the only one fighting the battle.”

These forums also give central actors an opportunity to “demonstrate to them that we’re fixing some of the systemic issues, like pay reform”.

This work to build relationships and team spirit more than pays off when digital leaders – who are constantly pushed apart, as another participant noted, by “very stovepiped mandates; self-interest; a proliferation of strategies and guidelines and directives” – are asked to build a single digital strategy together.

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Trust in teamwork

“It can be lonely… when you feel like you’re the only one fighting the battle.” Thomas Beautyman, Deputy Director for Government Digital Capability in the UK’s Cabinet Office

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.

The last – and crucial – part of this engagement and delivery puzzle comes in the shape of the departmental leaders. The UK has put its permanent secretaries right at the heart of its roadmap, commented Beautyman: “It was endorsed by all of them, and they were all signatories to the document.”

The roadmap is overseen by a Digital and Data Board comprising the permanent secretaries of six of the biggest departments, he explained, “and they now come together, typically every two months, and talk about nothing other than digital and data”. Each has taken responsibility for delivering one of its ‘missions’, with the support of a steering group bringing together relevant DDAT leaders from across government; and their progress is measured against quantifiable, department-level targets – making their performance very public.

“There are 21 commitments, and you can see them all on our website; we know exactly where we are against them,” Beautyman said. “So they feel on the hook for delivering this, making sure that when it comes to allocating budgets in their own departments, they don’t shy away from the need to continue to deliver against it.”

Getting to this point has not been an easy road. “Working in digital government is hard,” commented Beautyman. “It’s fundamentally about change, which is about people’s feelings, their emotions; we try every day to find a way to change people’s behaviours.” But the potential rewards are huge, he said, recalling a visit to a benefits office where he met a frontline worker who’d recently begun using a new digital benefits system.

“Her eyes lit up, and she talked with genuine passion about how this new platform allowed us to deliver much better for her benefits claimants,” he recalled. “She was excited that she’d been given the opportunity to provide input, and to help define and improve that service. Delivering change is about more than a checklist; it’s about giving our people a genuine opportunity to be part of that conversation.”

While Government Digital Summit sessions are held in private, GGF produces these reports to reveal to our readers around the world the priorities and preoccupations of national digital leaders – checking before publication that participants are content to be quoted. Our four reports cover the four daytime sessions:

Practical plans: how to build a digital strategy that gets delivered
The shelves of governments around the world are groaning with digital strategies that laid out their ambitious goals – then collapsed on contact with reality. In this session, top leaders from around the world explored how to produce a strategy that generates real change.

The evolution of AI: fresh challenges and emerging opportunities
Digital leaders are as daunted by the risks around AI as they are excited by its potential to transform public services. In a fascinating debate, they explored how to realise its potential while dodging its dangers.

Winning the cyber arms race
Cyber criminals and hostile intelligence agencies present an ever-growing risk to your organisation’s systems, assets and reputation. Here, national IT chiefs identified the keys to security in a perilous digital world.

The battle of the data strategies
When ChatGPT was invited to pick a winner, a session on data strategies took on an unexpectedly competitive tone. Would the UK or Canada win this strategy slamdown?

We’d like to express our gratitude to our knowledge partners, EY and Blackberry, whose support enabled us to provide this event at no cost to the public sector.

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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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