Speak up and be heard: the importance of digital voices in policymaking

By on 20/12/2021 | Updated on 02/02/2022
Credit: Fauxels via Pexels

Digital technologies are opening up exciting new ways of providing public services but making optimal use of these requires civil service organisations to sweep away traditional siloes and promote collaboration between policy, digital and frontline teams. Experts at a recent Foundry4 webinar explored how to achieve this transformation

The traditional model of policymaking sees dedicated teams in Whitehall write policy under instruction from ministers before handing over to a separate team charged with final delivery of the services established by that policy. But this process does not suit the new digital technologies that are increasingly underpinning those services, which are much more likely to be developed using fast-paced, agile approaches. How can departments ensure that digital technologies and expertise are fully embedded in policymaking and service design from the outset?

All the participants at a recent webinar hosted by tech consultancy Foundry4 agreed that building bridges between topical experts and digital specialists was the key to integration, and that this requires education and a willingness to learn on all sides.

Natalie Taylor, chief growth officer at Foundry4, said that a lack of digital literacy on the part of policy and frontline staff – and ministers – can really hamper innovation, with too many ambitions reduced to “let’s build an app”. It is vital, she said, for digital, data and technology (DDaT) specialists to be patient and invest time in educating and coaching their policy and frontline colleagues about their ways of working and the benefits afforded by technology including, for example, the use of data to gain insights and the efficiencies of artificial intelligence tools.

James Reeve, head of digital at the Department for Education, said that simply telling colleagues about the benefits of technology is not usually effective – they have to experience it themselves “to get bitten by the bug”.

He said: “For someone to become an advocate for you, you need them to be in the team. You need to have shared goals, shared outcomes, shared experiences – because ultimately that’s what builds up trust between people.”

One way to achieve this is to promote more secondments and rotations between digital and policy posts, so that each can learn more about the other’s roles and challenges. This is what happened to Alice Whitehead, service owner for the funding service at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

Whitehead began her career on the policy side of the Fast Stream but after spending time in the Government Digital Service on rotation, she was inspired by that organisation’s commitment to improving services for users and excited by the opportunities that digital technologies presented.

Whitehead’s current title of “service owner” is one that the government digital profession has adopted to describe someone who takes responsibility for the digital development elements of a service but is located within a policy or operational team and acts as a “translator” of what’s happening with the service in the context of the team’s work.

However, she was clear that the onus should not just be on policy officials to learn new approaches, and said that policy staff often felt frustrated when their digital colleagues failed to grasp the multiple pressures they are under to deliver results for ministers.

“So, while we’re asking civil servants to learn more about digital, we’re also asking people who want to work in government digital to learn more about government,” she said. “I see a big space for people who understand both of those things.”

Multi-disciplinary teams

All the panellists espoused the benefits of building teams comprised of multiple disciplines right at the start of a project and formatting those teams around outcomes, not functions.

Taylor said that engagement between policy and digital needs to take place well before development begins, ideally at or even before the discovery stage, when user research is being planned. She recalled a cross-cutting EU exit project that she handled recently for the Cabinet Office, where she installed a digital delivery manager and a user researcher who were both senior enough to feel empowered to challenge and push back against the more senior policy stakeholders who didn’t always understand the implications of the demands they were making.

“We had the Cabinet Office team, we had the supplier team, and we had the special advisers meeting regularly to decide what was happening and prioritise work. That’s quite rare, in my experience, but it worked really well. We ended up with special advisers attending user research sessions and seeing the feedback for themselves, and of course it completely changed their perspective on what they were asking for and naturally led to a much better solution that worked for both parties.”

Whitehead said the DDaT profession has adopted “matrix management” where teams comprise policy, delivery and operations staff inside one unit, to the extent that some staff are line-managed by people who are not even in their own headcount group. “Service owners” such as herself are accountable for the outcomes.

She added that it is crucial to have someone in the team who keeps close tabs on the policy priorities as they evolve. “Policy is very fast-moving, and if you don’t stay engaged you can lose the thread. So it’s really useful to have someone in the team who keeps going back and checking in with private office or director general’s office to follow the policy and understand what’s happening with it.”

Embarking on the digital journey

A live poll conducted during the webinar suggested that different organisations are at different stages of their policy transformation journeys: 14% of respondents said they were making plenty of progress; half said they were “on the journey”, and 36% said it remained a “huge challenge”.

Reeve had some advice for those that were still trying to “leave basecamp”, as he put it. He said the best way to get traction from those you need to convince about the change you want to make is not necessarily to paint a picture of the exact solution, but merely to show them how poor the existing service is. Once you have instilled a feeling in them that it needs to improve and that you can help them achieve that, he said, energy and momentum for change will naturally follow.

He said it was important to help people learn without feeling threatened, and this requires adaptation and compromise to bring people along on the journey. He used the example of dressing in a suit if he has a meeting with a policy official about a project. “It’s not my preferred outfit, but it’s a small sacrifice for me to make. It’s about adapting and using all the tools you have available to build relationships.”

It is also useful to seek out allies. “Call in the cavalry,” Reeve said. “Find people who can show you what good looks like, who can give you case studies and business cases and outline the benefits. Start small, pick your service carefully, find a few people who have been there before and hire judiciously.”

The panellists agreed that buying in external expertise can be useful to help build bridges between disciplines and to persuade leaders of the benefits of a particular approach. Indeed, sometimes this can be the only way to win over sceptics.

Operational phase

Once an organisation feels ready to move out of the start-up phase and into the operational phase, it needs to move quickly into thinking about its capability to scale up, Reeve advised.

“Think about your long-term plan, because there’s a good chance your organisation won’t be ready for you. How will you make your organisation effective? Again, find people internally, externally, wherever. If you think you’ll have to hire user researchers to get to the scale you want to get to, how will you recruit them? How will you make sure they’re good? How will you retain them? These are all questions that will hit you within a year, so once you start hiring you need to be thinking about the long term as well as the short term.”

Reeve added that the importance of communication cannot be overstated. He said that “in DfE, the thing we do again and again and again, is to show the work we’ve done, tell our stories of success. Have your case studies ready for your engagement sessions with senior leaders; repetition is the key. You really cannot over-communicate this stuff. There is no picture you can show too many times, no framework you can over-discuss, no story about how many millions of pounds you’ve saved that you can tell too many times”.

Looking to the future

Foundry4’s Taylor predicted that the future would usher in an even greater focus on data, on security and on updating obsolete legacy systems that no longer provide a good user experience or value for money. But in order for the civil service to be successful in this, she said, it will “have to have deep technology expertise at the table a lot more, and in senior roles”.

She said it was incumbent upon senior figures to improve their own understanding of digital: “No matter what your remit is – whether you’re a chief financial officer or a minister – I think everybody has a responsibility these days to have a minimum level of education around technology. It’s an intrinsic part of how we do business and how our staff operate and how people run their lives. Unless you have that, I don’t think you can really be an effective leader.”

Whitehead said there remains a lot to be done to integrate digital into all the existing professions of the civil service, as well as it being a specialist profession, but she felt positive that familiarity with the potential offered by digital is steadily building.

“It spread through the cabinet secretary’s words to civil servants, it spread through Michael Gove’s ideas about how the civil service can change and be better. It really feels like everything is pulling in the same direction. So for me, it’s absolutely not about whether policymaking is going to be changed by digital, but just how exactly it will be.

Reeve concluded: “We should never forget about operational staff and people on the frontline, because they have the deepest insights and they know what works. I think the next frontier is how we get operational voices into policymaking and digital-making. Bringing those three things together will really set us up for success in the next 10 years.”

This webinar was hosted by Foundry4 on 11 November 2021, with support from Global
Government Forum
. You can 
watch the 75-minute webinar
via our dedicated event page

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