What’s the Point of Digital Transformation?

It has taken somewhat longer than l had intended to build on my original musings in the summer of 2016. Since then, the democratic outcomes of Brexit/Trump have shaken the liberal establishments. Possibly the impact of digital technologies are having earlier relevance than anyone had imagined, as the anxiety of the forgotten voters are reflected in their concerns about the future. Certainly digital transformation is one of many underlying drivers of change. However, despite all the overt fear of AI, machine learning and robotics the trend to more agile, data driven societies will hopefully support more robust, supportive, inclusive and connected communities.

The outcome of these recent votes are not the cause of my current reflections. Having spent the past 18 months commuting between Australia and the UK, I am even more conscious of the each respective government’s journey to accelerate the development and adoption of digital services that are built around the citizen. The reason both governments and many others are promoting and driving this change is rarely ideological. It is driven by practical economics and the desire to achieve better outcomes for the public.

The WHY is a recognition that best practice development of digital services can deliver:

  • Significant (20-80%) cost savings over traditional approaches to development of applications on rigid physical infrastructure that benefit the public purse;
  • More agile and elastic services that enable rapid implementation at lower costs and more importantly meet the challenges of volatile population demand, changing government policy and expansive technological innovation; and ultimately,
  • Collaborative environments where data analytics can drive better outcomes with the support and consent of the ultimate data owner – the citizen.

The WHAT to consider is simple; digital services are based on applications.

Excellent digital services (i.e. ones that citizens want to use like Uber, Airbnb, Snapchat, etc) are built around the user need and are easy to adopt, easy to use and, if necessary, easy to leave. However, in GovLand (or Ditherland as I recently heard it described by a senior Australian public servant), life is not the blank page of start-up valley. In GovLand consideration has to be given to organisations’ existing IT setups’ dependencies and foibles, whilst new applications can and should be developed based on cloud IaaS or PaaS using best practice (defined by UK’s Government Digital Services Digital Service Design Principles with consideration of the complementary Technology Code of Practice).

As any experienced CIO/CTO is only too aware, this utopia becomes somewhat more challenging when managing more complex back office applications (Finance, Payroll, HR) that are stuffed full of vendor Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) that the world will end if you move these to cloud – well at least another vendor’s cloud – and all those bundled-in licences and other treats. Equally, there is a real risk and complexity with migrating legacy workloads that are running national tax collection, benefits payments, or simply the public service payroll, which is dutifully reinforced by the incumbent SI who is only too happy to help make this business case for you.

Patronising sarcasm aside, the different context that are faced by CIO/CTOs are real and need to be recognised as such and treated differently. The UK has quietly – almost too quietly – recognised this and created a different approach to each context, which is easy to communicate and to understand:

  • New applications and adapted front of office applications (booking, scheduling, CRM, etc) are mandated to be developed based on best practice
  • Back office applications, to neuter the power based of the relatively few providers and purveyors of FUD, are increasingly steered towards a common shared services environment that is operated by a commercial company, albeit with a government shareholding
  • Legacy applications are mandated to be consolidated into Government data centres, that again are operated by a commercial company, albeit with a government shareholding

Unfortunately, the faithful zealots that often revere a single development language, process, or quasi-religion too often drown out the rationale in their mission to move society towards more digitally based services. This only causes the uncertain, risk-averse public servant to retrench towards what they know and where they feel safe; after all no-one got fired for buying red or blue.

This really highlights that digital transformation is a change management, not a technology challenge. To be really effective the corporate or government policy that seeks to accelerate the inevitable digital transformation needs to capitalise on enlightened self-interest. In the UK, an example of this was the policy to open up procurement to a wide range of new entrants, start-ups and SMEs rather than the staid procession of non-UK corporates that had traditionally dominated the supply of IT to government. This established a dynamic eco-system of suppliers with innovative services that could be procured on short-term (sometimes only hourly!) contracts and could easily be compared with competing services. This enabled the self-interested to try, without locking themselves into long-term pain, safe in the knowledge that they were buying best value services to the benefit of their citizens.

The HOW to implement digital transformation is now increasingly clear from numerous successful case studies across UK government. Equally, the many hybrid, not quite committed instances of failure also highlight the considerations to avoid.

Personally, my advice is not rocket science:

  • Understand the context and assess the risks not only of the application implementation but also of the underlying dataset before setting out on a chosen path
  • Neither zealotry nor risk aversion are the routes to success
  • In creating the citizen- or public servant-facing application follow the UK’s best practice and put the USER NEEDS at the centre
  • Be honest and undertake ‘apples for apples’ comparisons of in-house versus cloud infrastructure and ensure best value through turning off services that are not required – many applications within government do not need to run outside business hours
  • DO NOT treat security (confidentiality, integrity and availability in Information Assurance speak) as an after-thought. An appropriate risk assessment should consider whether your citizen is entirely comfortable with their data on your chosen cloud service as well as the ability of the provider to provide the information to undertake your risk assessment

The point is simple: whether a government or a business, engaging with citizens and consumers through digital channels is increasingly a matter of survival. Following best practice with respect to Digital Services makes your organisation more cost effective, provides the ability to adapt, and enables the analysis of the resulting data to improve the service based on real behaviours.

What’s not to like?

Phil Dawson

Chief Executive Officer