This afternoon, I attended the first meeting of the new cross-Government Digital Leaders network. Chaired by Mike Bracken it brought together the nominated Digital Leaders from all Government departments and the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with the ambitious shared remit of reinventing public services for the digital age.
As the Digital Leader for the Department of Health, I joined colleagues from a diverse range of professional backgrounds – communications, service delivery, technology services and many others – in a hot and crowded room in Admiralty Arch to discuss how we, a ‘bunch of civil servants’, could make public services simple, effective and above all beautiful for the public.
It’s a compelling proposition. Take the services Government provides and redesign them from the point of view of the user, not the host department. Ensure we deliver services and transactions digitally by default, not digitally as an after-thought. In digital circles we talk a lot about user-centred design, user experience, accessibility and simplicity, but the reality is that Government services remain in large part unwieldy, inconsistent, un-joined up and unattractive to the user.
So how do we truly make ‘digital by default’ a reality for Government? Creating the Digital Leaders network is clearly a positive start. And judging by the numbers crammed into the meeting room, one that is well bought into. Following Mike’s introduction linking form, function and beauty, Francis Maude gave a scene-setting address which reinforced that digital by default – supported by assisted digital – was not an option but a requirement. In true GDS fashion we were then handed post-it notes and coloured pens to write down what excited us, what worried us and what we needed from others as digital leaders. Unsurprisingly there were many common themes. Excitement at digital being endorsed at Board level by the creation of the network; at the opportunity to re-create meaningful services for the public; at making user-centred design a reality. Worries at the level of support and engagement we would receive from departmental boards; at potentially creating chaos rather than simplicity; at not having the right skills and resource to deliver real transformative change. And a real recognition of the power of the group and the need to share intelligence and experiences, to co-create solutions and to work together, not in isolation.
Having broken the ice with post-it notes and flipcharts, we discussed a range of issues around how to structure and develop a Government Digital Strategy supported by departmental digital strategies, next steps for gov.uk and how to manage demand for digital. Alongside the common themes it was also clear that different departments and administrations have very different needs, and a clear take-away was that a one-size-fits all approach cannot work.
So a very real opportunity for the network is to take the varying customer needs and multiple contexts for the full range of Government services and identify the areas for collaboration, for rationalisation, for reducing duplication and for following a set of common, agreed principles, always starting with the user. At the strategic level, the mandate is clear and some would say obvious. But the devil is in the detail and as Digital Leaders we will need to address the complexity head-on and navigate the detail together, whilst never losing sight of the big strategic goal.
Digital within departments can be a lonely place. It’s often seen as the preserve of geeks or trendy young things and a cross-Government professional network with a mandate for real change is long overdue. It’s comforting to know that others are dealing with the knotty problems, and what also came across clearly today was there’s no quick fix. We need culture change and re-education to position policy not as a series of documents, but as products and tools that make a real difference to the public. If this is one of the things the Digital Leaders network can achieve alongside the more concrete deliverables like gov.uk, that will be real transformative change. And, as Mike says, beautiful too.
About the author: Rachel Neaman is the Digital Leader for the Department of Health